To Paul’s bemusement, I’ve got a stressful habit of putting him on the spot with questions like, “What’s your favourite album ever?” or “What would you have for your last meal?”, fired out of the blue at point-blank range. I enjoy the challenge of weighing up the options under self-imposed pressure, and the fact that my dad emailed recently asking for my list of five albums for a desert island suggests that this tendency might be genetic in origin.

(For the record, they are: Different Class (Pulp); The Band (The Band); Funeral (Arcade Fire); Blue (Joni Mitchell); and Blood on The Tracks (Bob Dylan). I think. This week, anyway.)

Apart from the unflattering likeness to the protagonist of High Fidelity (don’t ask me his name – I couldn’t even remember the title of the book. Hello, middle age), this proclivity also means that I love programmes like Room 101, and the bit of Saturday Kitchen where the celebrity guest must come up with their ‘food heaven’ and ‘food hell’. I think it’d be one in the eye for James Martin when I told him that my ‘food heaven’ would be quinces.

Until relatively recently, I’d never seen a quince in the flesh, only in the form of membrillo – that sweet, dense paste that forms the perfect accompaniment to manchego cheese. Having discovered that the Turkish Food Centre in Dalston pretty much always has the fruit in stock, I’ve poached them in a sugar syrup spiced with star anise, vanilla, and lemon zest and baked the resulting sticky, tender, rosy fruit into a frangipane tart, as well as cooking them in butter and baking them into a sort of crumble (Nigel Slater’s ‘soft quinces under a crisp crust’ from Tender Volume II). I’ve always wanted to give membrillo a bash though, and finally got round to tackling it this week. It might make an appearance in the Christmas hampers if it turns out OK.

Membrillo (adapted from The Preserving Book, published by DK)
This recipe makes 5 or 6 little ramekin dishes of membrillo

1kg (2¼lb) quinces, scrubbed clean
Juice ½ lemon
Approx 450g (1lb) granulated sugar – see step 5

1. Hack your quinces up into rough chunks, leaving the peel, core, and stalk etc in. I think this might be because the core and peel are the most pectin-y parts of the fruit, so this will help the set. Don’t leave the pieces too big or you’ll be cooking them all night – about 2½cm (1in) chunks will be fine.

2. Put the quince pieces into a preserving pan, if you have one, otherwise a large, heavy-based saucepan, along with 600ml (1 pint) of cold water and the juice of half a lemon. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on the pan, prodding any rogue quince pieces under the water to cook through if necessary.

3. Once the fruit is soft enough to mash, take it off the heat, squish it to a pulp with a potato masher and leave it to cool in the pan.

4. Taking the cooled pulp a ladleful or so at a time, sieve it into a clean bowl or large measuring jug. This bit’s quite hard work – you need to really squash it against the side of the sieve with your wooden spoon so you get plenty of the lovely quince purée out of it.

5. Once you’ve worked your way through all the fruit, measure the purée and add 450g (1lb) sugar for every 450ml (15fl oz) of purée. I only got about 300ml of purée and now I feel like a failure.

6. Rinse out the saucepan so you don’t get any twiggy bits in your membrillo, pour the purée and sugar back in and set the pan over a low heat while you stir to dissolve the sugar.

7. When you can no longer hear the sugar crystals scratching around in the bottom of the pan, turn the heat right up and bring the mixture to the boil before turning it down again to simmer gently for 45–60 minutes. Give it a stir every now and then to make sure that it doesn’t burn.

8. While your quince purée’s cooking, sterilize six ramekins by washing them in hot, soapy water, rinsing, then drying on a baking tray in a 140°C oven for about 15 minutes. Keep them warm, and try to avoid touching the inside of the dishes once they’re clean.

9. The purée will eventually start to look more like membrillo – it’ll be a lovely rosy red, and will become very thick and sticky. At this point, act quickly so it doesn’t set in a funny shape: use a tiny bit of vegetable oil to grease your ramekins, then divide your membrillo between them. Smooth the tops down as much as you can, although this might be awkward as it cools.

10. Once they’ve cooled and set, turn out the disks of membrillo (I had to prise them out with a palette knife), and wrap them individually in baking parchment. It needs to mature for 4–6 weeks, so I’ll try it then and report back on the taste.

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I’m suffering from a touch of self-sufficiency envy. In fact, I’m typing this with Giles and Sue Live the Good Life on in the background. I might live in a tiny studio flat in N1, where the waiting list for an allotment is so long (about ten years) that they’re not even taking names anymore, but I still harbour wistful dreams of pottering about on a vegetable patch of a weekend. Oh to have a glut of something to deal with! I long to preserve, can, and bottle things because it’s the only way to get through the hungry gap; it’s just not the same when you have to go to the farmers’ market to buy a lorryload of quinces.

Anyway, come Christmas time, I let my inner Barbara Good out and allow her to make chutneys, jellies, and jams to foist on my nearest and dearest. Hopefully they find this endearing, rather than irritatingly cheapskate. To jazz it all up a bit, I’ve also made some sweet treats in the past; chocolate truffles and chocolate and peanut butter cups have both gone down well.

This year, I’ve splashed out on a preserving pan, having learnt from my last couple of tries that there are few things hotter or more stubbornly sticky than chilli jam that’s escaped from your too-small saucepan all over the top of the hob. Yesterday was the pan’s first outing, as I made clementine and whisky marmalade (from The Preserving Book) followed by spiced pumpkin chutney (from Kitchen).

The marmalade is pretty straightforward; you can painstakingly shred 900g organic clementines by hand, or blitz them in a food processor until finely chopped (not to a pulp). After simmering in your preserving pan or suitably large saucepan in 900ml water to soften the rind, add 900g caster sugar and the juice of two large lemons (to help the set, as apparently clementines are not particularly high in pectin), stir over a low heat to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and simmer for around 30 minutes until the setting point is reached. Stir in a wee dram (or 1–2 tbsp) of whisky before spooning into warm sterilised jars, topping with waxed paper disks, sealing and labelling. I was pretty smug by this point, I can tell you. This recipe fills four 80z/250ml jars.

Paddington would be proud

Since I was on a roll, spiced pumpkin chutney was next on the list. My initial optimism was rapidly cooled by the fine-dicing of an enormous butternut squash. Damn you, Nigella. Once slung into the preserving pan with a chopped cooking apple, two chopped onions, sugar, spices, and vinegar, it’s just a case of leaving it to simmer for about an hour until it thickens and the squash is tender. Then it’s the usual sterilise/spoon/label/congratulate self routine. Chutney needs at least a month, and two if at all possible, to sit in its jar becoming delicious before you tuck in – don’t get greedy and dig in beforehand, or it’ll just be horrible and the most vinegary thing you’ve ever eaten.

The major drawback of chutney making in particular is the acrid, all-pervading stench of vinegar. There really is no getting rid of it for a few days afterwards, so it’s a good idea to try to make all your vinegar-based condiments in one go. Next on the list for me: red onion marmalade and chilli jam.

My last attempt to make chilli jam was not the most comfortable of experiences. Nigella’s recipe is very straightforward, but I’d failed to take into account just how sensitive my hands could be when cutting up fifteen red chillies. Eight hours later, attempting to sleep with my still-burning left hand in a bowl of cold water to ease the agony, no tasty condiment seemed worth the bother. However, I can report with relief that whatever urban myths you may have heard about sleeping with your hand in water are indeed false.

But maybe it’s the same sort of thing described by women who’ve given birth – you forget the pain afterwards, when you’ve got the product of your not-inconsiderable labours to show for it. This is why, on a hungover Sunday afternoon and armed with some of those gloves that make you feel like a forensic investigator, I found myself hacking up chillies yet again. Once roughly chopped, they are whizzed up in the food processor along with an equal quantity of red peppers, before being added to jam sugar dissolved in cider vinegar. Next comes a good ten minutes’ boiling, during which time the mixture creeps dangerously close to the top of the pan, then forty minutes’ cooling before ladling into sterilised jars and handing out to your nearest and dearest if you can bear to.

Cross your fingers now

My one problem with Nigella’s recipe is that she tells you to use jam sugar, an easy-to-use mixture of sugar and pectin. She says that this saves you the trouble of boiling up pectin-rich fruit and straining them to extract the setting agent for your jelly, but I find that the jam sugar gives a consistency much more akin to chilli sauce than a jelly. An effective middle way is to buy sachets of pectin (Tate & Lyle sell them in packs of three) – it’s simple enough to mix this with normal granulated sugar and the juice of a lemon and use this in the recipe for a much better set.

Chilli jam (adapted from Nigella Christmas) – makes around 1.5 litres, or 6 x 250ml jars

150g long fresh red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
150g red pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
1kg jam sugar (or 1kg granulated sugar, mixed with a sachet of pectin and the juice of a lemon)
600ml cider vinegar

  1. Sterilise your jars by washing in very hot soapy water, rinsing clean and drying in a
    140°C oven.
  2. Put the cut-up chillies into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the chunks of red pepper, and pulse again until finely chopped into flecks of red.
  3. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar in a large, wide pan, without stirring.
  4. Add the chilli and pepper mixture. Bring to the boil, then leave at a boil for ten minutes.
  5. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool for around 40 minutes, until the flecks of chilli and pepper are evenly distributed in the mixture rather than sitting on the top. Spoon into the sterilised jars, and seal tightly.