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Membrillo (Iberian Quince Paste)
Quince. Membrillo. What are they and why should you care?
Once upon a time quince trees were a homesteader’s delight. While inedible raw (it is unpleasantly sour), the fruit contains high amounts of pectin, an essential ingredient in jams and jelly. Cooked, quince has a pleasant floral flavor with notes of apples and pears (the fruit’s relatives). With industrialization and the development of commercial pectin, the tree fell out of favor and is today scarcely known. At least in the United States.
The Spanish and Portuguese (and to a lesser extent, the Italians) still commonly use quince and membrillo is the jewel in the crown of quince cuisine. Also known as ducle de membrillo or carne de miembrillo (Spanish), marmelada (Portuguese), cotognata (Italian) and quince paste/jelly/candy/meat (English), membrillo is the result of slowly cooking quince with sugar until the fruit changes color from white to rosy orange and the natural pectin sets the confection. Sweet, tart and with notes of apple blossoms, membrillo naturally pairs with Iberian sheep’s milk cheeses like manchego.
Despite its reputation for being a gourmet food, membrillo is quite easy to make – it just takes some time. The most difficult aspect of this recipe will be tracking down fresh quince.
Cydonia vulgaris (quince) from Franz Eugen Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen. Quince is in the same taxonomic family (Rosaceae) as apples and pears.
Membrillo in its simplest form is just quince and sugar. Our recipe, however, also includes lemon for citrus brightness, warm and spicy Indian long pepper and saffron for its honeyed earthy notes. Instead of exact amounts we rely on ratios. Plan on 1 part quince purée to 1 part (or a little less) sugar, and for every 3 quince plan on 3 long peppers, half a lemon and a small pinch of saffron. A few black peppercorns can be substituted for the long peppers.
• Indian long pepper (optional)
• White sugar
• Saffron (optional)
• Bay leaves (optional)
• Cooking spray
• Parchment paper
• Offset spatula
• Wax paper
Prepare the Quince
Scrub the quince then slice off and discard a quarter inch of the blossom end of each fruit. Cut the fruits in half and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Roughly chop the quince and place in a large pot along with one long pepper for each quince. Cover the quince with a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Cook for 30-40 minutes or until fork-tender. Drain, reserving both quince and long pepper. Purée the quince along with 1 long pepper for every 3 fruits. At this point the quince will have oxidized slightly, changing from white to slightly brown.
Cook the Purée: Part I
Combine the purée and an equal volume of sugar in a large pot. For every three quince also add the juice and zest of half a lemon and a pinch of saffron. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting and continue to cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. We recommend loosely placing a piece of foil over the pot as the purée may splatter. Also, membrillo’s characteristic rosy orange color is related to heat. There is nothing wrong with pale membrillo but if you want a darker product, increase the heat and be vigilant with your stirring as the thickened purée will scorch.
Cook the Purée: Part II
After about 2 hours the purée will have noticeably thickened. At this point stir constantly, slightly increasing the heat to medium-low. Separately, prepare a deep baking tray by lining it with parchment paper and giving it a spray with cooking spray. When you can drag a spoon across the bottom of the pan without the “parted sea” filling in, the purée is ready for the next step. Be patient.
Cook the Purée: Part III
Carefully pour the thickened purée into the prepared baking tray. Using an offset spatula coated with cooking spray, evenly distribute the purée. Next, place the baking tray in an oven pre-heated to 150° F / 65° C and bake for 1 hour or until quite firm. If your oven’s lowest temperature is greater than 150° F / 65° C, jamb the door slightly ajar with a spoon.
Finishing the Membrillo
After an hour turn the oven’s heat off but allow the membrillo to completely cool while it remains in the oven. Once cooled, remove the solid block of membrillo from the baking sheet and cut into portions (a pizza cutter works well). Press a bay leaf into each portion and wrap with waxed paper. Membrillo can be stored in the refrigerator for several months or even longer in the freezer. Serve with cheese, spread on bread, or use as a filling in pastries.