As we ring in the new year, take a moment to step back from the details and consider the long view. The past year is done, ready or not, and the new year is full of promise. As we contemplate the past and future, why not dine on fruit that once brushed the tender lips of Aphrodite, tempted Eve, and were championed by Charlemagne?
I’m talking about the quince, of course.
For my New Years treats, I wanted a fruit with a long, romantic history. It’s worth seeking out, for its exotic perfume and unique flavor. It’s also a name dropper of a fruit, having hung out with Eve, Aphrodite, Pliny the Elder, Apicius and everybody who was anybody in Ancient Rome.
Quinces hark back to at least 60 BCE, when they were cultivated in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. The quince came before the apple, and historians insist that old references to apples actually referred to quince. When goddess Atalanta gave in to her craving for a bite of fruit, and even Eve’s fall from grace in the Bible may well have been caused by luscious, irresistible quinces, not apples. I’ve heard a number of other fruits try to claim the role of seducing Eve, so it is still a matter of debate. Suffice to say, the quince was once highly desired.
It’s hard to imagine how important it was now, but a big part of the appeal was the scent. Brides in ancient Greece took a bite of quince before going to the bridal chamber, to perfume their breath. Back before indoor plumbing and mouthwash, a fruit with the power to make you smell pretty would be good to keep in your pocket.
It’s also hard to imagine taking a big bite of the kinds of quinces I’ve tried, but there were, and are, varieties that can be eaten raw. The varieties I’ve found in the store are all the cooking kind. You’ll know when you cut into your quince, the flesh is hard and rough textured, with astringency that makes your tongue tingle. The quince is a specialty fruit in the US, and appears briefly around the holidays. If you have a Latin market nearby, it may be your quince source.
The quince was once grown more commonly in the US, back when everybody made jam. The quince is high in pectin, so it needs no added pectin or thickener to make it set. Adding a few to an apple or pear preserve would add perfume. Cooking the pale flesh of the quince also causes it to turn a rosy pink. If you’ve tried the Spanish Membrillo paste that is often served with cheese, you have experienced the quince- it’s just quince, cooked down until it turns a purplish red and sets itself into a slice-able gel.
For my quince tartlets, I simply peeled and chopped the fruit, tossing it with lemon as I went.
Once it simmered with the sugar for about 30 minutes, the fruit was tender, fragrant, and pink.
This makes plenty of quince and ginger filling, which you will be glad to have for piling on toast, a bowl of oatmeal, or even a very civilized sundae. The puff pastry makes it all very easy. Just cut out squares and bake them in your mini-muffin tins. Puff pastry is a “quietly vegan” ingredient. The common brands don’t use butter. This dessert is a fitting way to kick off your “Veganuary,” if you are going veg for the month. If you are not vegan and want more color to your puff, brush the top with some egg wash.
I love party fare that can be prepped ahead of time and assembled just before the crowd arrives. That way I can be cool, calm and collected, as I spoon a bit of filling in each cup and bake them just to warm and crisp the shells.
Warm, fragrant quince filled pastries will greet your guests. They go perfectly with champagne, too.
It’s fitting that we are looking forward to a new year, and enjoying an ancient, storied fruit. Quinces have perfumed the way for countless adventurers before you, as they stepped from one day to the next. Let the beauty and fragrance of quince add a moment of pleasure, and savor the knowledge that you share the experience with some famed sensualists. If that inspires you to be a little more like Aphrodite, so be it.
Happy New Year!
Quince and Crystallized Ginger Tartlets
Makes 16 with lots of filling left over, or 32 with some filling left over
5 cups chopped quince, 2 large
3/4 cup organic sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup apple juice
1/3 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1 sheet puff pastry, thawed (or 2 for 32 tartlets)
1/4 cup unsalted roasted pistachios
Peel and chop the quince, and put in a 2 quart pot. Add the sugar, lemon and apple juice, and place over medium high heat, stirring until the liquids start to boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir frequently for about half an hour. The fruit will soften and shrink. When the fruit is tender and the liquids are thick, take off the heat and stir in the ginger. Let cool. The filling can be made ahead of time, and keeps for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.
For the pastry, preheat the oven to 400 F. Have your mini muffin tins ready. Lightly flour a counter and roll out the pastry to make it a little more square. Use a pizza wheel or chefs knife to cut it 4×4 into 2 inch squares. tuck each square into a muffin cup. Bake for about 15 minutes, until lightly golden. Cool on racks. When completely cooled, you can store them in an airtight container at room temperature for up to four days.
To assemble, press down the center of each puff pastry to make room, and spoon a bit of filling in. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and the extra sugar from the crystallized ginger. Heat in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes, if desired. Serve.