October 25th, 2011

Quince Quest

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Serendipity and A Tale of Quinces

I had never seen a quince, let alone eaten one, but the benevolent forces aligned last week…

It started the morning I read Rachel’s latest blogpost, “Quincing My Words.” Her description of this odd but intriguing fruit drew me right in: Illusive. Ancient. Properly Sensual.

Picture, if you will, a bulbous cross between an apple and a pear, with a heady fragrance both floral and citric.

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My mind whirled, imagining its heft and scent, a fruit both exotic and seductive. (Perhaps these were the love apples of Venus?) I could envision bowls of quinces perfuming kitchens of antiquity, and prized trees laden with great yellow-green knobs planted outside Persian homes.

Rachel made the quince sound paradisaical, something from a dream. I doubted that I’d ever have the chance to taste this fruit, but enjoyed the read, and went about my day. My cousin Cathy was soon arriving to visit, and speak at the Southern Festival of Books.

That night we went to Anatolia’s, our favorite Turkish restaurant, and Cathy inquired about dessert.

“We have a special tonight,” our waiter said. “Baked quince. It is stuffed with walnuts and pistachios and we top it with cream. It is beautiful dessert, only here for a few weeks.”

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Ahhhhhhhhh. Yes!

He presented the confection, half an oblong fruit baked firm but spoon-supple, its center filled with a mixture of finely chopped nuts, cinnamon, and sugar. The pastry chef had garnished it with sweetened whipped cream and a scatter of pomegranate seeds.

The quince was like nothing else I’d ever eaten. Its texture much firmer than apples or pears–but smooth, not grainy–and its sweet-tart taste embodying a bit of both, but with layers of lemon and rose.

The whipped cream indeed gilded the lily, and the pomegranate seeds were little tangy firecracker bursts in each bite. Sublime!

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And so was born our mission to seek them out, and recreate the dish.

The next day, Cathy and I began our quince quest. First stop: Whole Foods, as recommended by the waiter at Anatolia’s. No luck. We drove across town to a large global market, again to no avail. And then Cathy made this observation, “This is a Middle Eastern dessert. We need to shop at a Middle Eastern market. Do you have one?”

Of course! We motored from the west side of town to the southside, out Nolensville Road, Nashville’s diverse global corridor for shopping and dining. A sign with distinctive script advertising fruits, vegetables, and Halal meats held promise but its owner had sad news; he had sold out a couple of days ago. “I have a friend. He may have some at his store.” He made the call, turned to us and said, “Only two pieces.”

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Sold. Two would be all we needed.

Blocks away, there they were, awaiting us, in a small market that held other delicacies worth exploring.

You’ll notice a light downy fuzz covering the quince that you’ll need to rinse off. And, until cooked, they remain devilishly hard. The yellower the quince, the riper. But, the oven-poach will transform even a green quince into a wondrous thing.

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At the Turkish restaurant, they may have baked the quince in some rosewater–a splendid idea. We chose pear nectar and lemon, which imparted lovely notes to the poach, and its resulting caramel-like sauce.

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When Cathy visits, she likes to bring recipes for me to try. The wedge you’ve seen plated with our quince is Oat Pudding, a simple rustic dessert from the Friuli region of Italy that Cathy had been making recently. We knew that this pudding would be an ideal accompaniment to the fruit.

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OVEN-POACHED QUINCES, STUFFED WITH WALNUTS AND PISTACHIOS
2 Quinces, cut in half, and cored
1/4 c. Pistachios, finely chopped
1/4 c. Walnuts, finely chopped
3 T. Sugar
1/2 t. Cinnamon
2 T. Butter
1 1/2 cups Pear Nectar (or juice)
1 1/2 cups Water
1 Lemon, cut into strips

Optional: Pomegranate seeds (taken from a quarter section)
lightly sweetened Whipped Cream

You’ll need a good sharp knife for this. The quinces are hard-hard, but will remarkably soften and yield their marvelous flavor in a long oven-poach.

Mix water and pear nectar in a deep casserole dish. Add lemon strips.
Mix nuts, sugar, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Press nut mixture into the center core of each quince half. Dot with butter.

Place each half, facing up, into the pear-water bath. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated 325 degree oven. Bake for an hour and uncover. Baste the quinces. Bake uncovered for another 20-30 minutes.

Serve warm, and drizzle the caramelized juices over the quince.
2 Quince=4 large half-size servings, or 8 nice wedges to eat with Oat Pudding.

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OAT PUDDING
adapted from Recipes from an Italian Farmhouse by Valentina Harris
1 1/4 c. Oatmeal
2 1/2 c. Milk
4 Egg Yolks
7 T. Sugar
2 T. Pear Nectar

Spread oatmeal on a baking sheet and toast in a 225 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

Bring milk to a boil. Sprinkle in oatmeal, lower the heat, and stir constantly for about 10 minutes. Add more milk if the mixture seems too stiff. Remove from heat.
For a smooth pudding: puree oatmeal in a blender. For heartier texture, leave the mixture as is.

Beat egg yolks until fluffy and light lemon colored. Add sugar and beat for at least 5 minutes longer. Fold into oatmeal mixture and cook on low heat for 7 minutes, stirring until thickened and custardy.

Coat the bottom of a small mixing bowl with pear nectar. Pour in oat pudding mixture. Chill for at least 4 hours. Turn out and serve.

Serves 6-8

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Posted in Desserts, Fruit, Gluten Free, Recipes | 34 Comments »