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.