I am the sort of person who will take ten pounds of quinces off your hands, even if they’ve mostly fallen off the tree and are bruised and cracked and in need of immediate attention. Keep this in mind if you ever wind up with a productive quince tree and don’t know what to do. Why would I willingly drag ten pounds of hard, sour yellow fruit home from work on the bus with me, you ask? First of all, because I got them for free, and secondly, because I’d once tasted dulce de membrillo, a quince paste traditionally eaten in Portugal, Spain and Italy, on crackers with cheese, and I loved it and wanted to eat it again. I looked up several recipes for the stuff, and ended up combining ideas from two of them (this one and this one) because vanilla pods are expensive and I had lemon juice but not a whole lemon at the time. If you are shaking your head at this point and wondering what on earth a quince even is, please go and read about it on Wikipedia and you will be much enlightened.
Here’s my dulce de membrillo recipe:
2kg quartered quince (peeled and cored, unless you have a food mill – see below)
1 – 2 cups water (250ml – 500ml – depends on how ripe and juicy your quinces are)
1 cinnamon stick
3 Tbsp lemon juice
1.5 kg sugar (a lot, I know! And I reduced it!)
The first step in making this is just like making applesauce: cook the quinces and mush them up. Quinces are very hard fruits – if you get them before they’re fully ripe they’ll be even harder, and fuzzy on the outside. The ones I obtained were ripe, most of the fuzz had rubbed off, and I didn’t need to use a hatchet to chop them up. If you happen to have some very hard quinces and are finding them difficult to deal with, you can cook them first – either by boiling or roasting for a little while – to soften them up. I was just fine cutting them up raw with a big sharp knife.
Now, if you don’t have a food mill or something similar, you’re going to want to peel and core the quinces before making them into mush. If you are lucky enough to have borrowed your mom’s old-school food mill, like me, you can just quarter them and throw them all into a big pot to cook them up, but otherwise at least take out the cores. Quinces have a lot of seeds, which you don’t want to eat. Put the chopped quinces into a large pot with the water and bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and steam the fruit until it’s soft and easy to break apart. Stir occasionally. “Fork tender” is what one of the recipes recommended, but don’t worry, you can’t really overcook this stuff unless you let it burn on the bottom of the pan. If you’ve peeled and cored the quince, you can now take a hand blender or potato masher to it and you won’t even have to take it out of the pot. If, like me, you would rather turn a handle for a while than spend your time peeling and coring, take the cooked quince out of the pot and put it through the food mill (see photo below). You could probably get away with just coring, but not peeling, your quinces if their skins weren’t too fuzzy.
Note about the sugar: the recipes I read called for equal parts quince mush and sugar – either by weight or by cup measure. I thought this was a bit much, but was afraid to do too much reducing as I wanted it to work, dammit.. Having a scale, I weighed out 2kg of chopped quince and then 1.5kg of sugar (not the full 2kg). You could do this by the cup once you’ve made the quince mush – try using fewer cups of sugar than quince mush and see what happens, if you’re willing to experiment.
Return the quince mush to the pot, add the sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon juice, and simmer over low-ish heat for a very long time. You don’t want it to burn, but you do want it to change colour, which it does after a while, from yellow to dark reddish-orange. I’m pretty sure I cooked it for at least an hour and forty-five minutes. It needs to be thick enough that you can basically stand a spoon up in it (the spoon might fall over after a few seconds but it should stand up for longer than it would in a regular liquid). If you cook it until it’s really thick, it will probably solidify nicely even without time in the oven, but might as well err on the side of caution, right? So once it’s good and red and thick, remove the cinnamon stick and line a casserole dish or baking pan of some sort (you may need more than one) with parchment paper. Pour the quince goo into this prepared pan, and stick it in the oven at the lowest baking temperature (150°-170°F) for an hour to help it dry out. The less water you add initially, the better, in terms of solidification. The first recipe I read said to cover the quinces with water for the initial cooking, and then drain the water off before mushing them, but that’s unnecessary when you can get away with just a cup or two of water and then let it evaporate during the cooking process. After the hour in the oven, let the membrillo cool. It should be a soft, sticky solid that can be cut up into squares. You can wrap chunks of it in wax paper, then place these in plastic bags and keep in the fridge or freezer for a good long while. Serve with manchego cheese (or whatever cheese you prefer) and your favourite crackers.