Every day this week I’ve walked into the house to the perfumed air of quince. To me, it’s vanilla, pineapple, pear – maybe some apple too. I can say unequivocally that quince isn’t like anything you’ve ever smelled – ever. Its powerful scent and flavor can be the basis for many foods, both sweet and savory.
But this week, tumbling toward Thanksgiving and thinking of the holidays, I had mincemeat pie on my mind. Before you object to mincemeat, let me explain. I grew up on mincemeat pie at Thanksgiving. It came in a bottle, was not cheap to purchase and made a delicious pie with the help of my mother’s fabulous pie crust. This bottled mincemeat did not contain meat as such, but did contain some suet (beef fat) for flavor. What I tasted was the rich flavor of currants, raisins and apples cooked with brandy, autumn spices, orange and lemon zest and vanilla.
After acquiring 20 pounds of quince last week and with my mind on Thanksgiving, I wanted to try making my own mincemeat (sans the meat and suet) with the quince. What resulted was an amazing flavor – both tart and aromatic.
Quince is an ancient fruit, related to pears and apples. In ancient Greece, a quince was a gift to a lover. One whiff of a ripe quince and you understand why. It’s a dense fruit with an astringent flavor when eaten raw. You will find it in restaurants poached, roasted or cooked until soft and pureed for sauces. Any way it’s prepared, it retains a tart-sweet and unusual flavor.
Making mince out of any fruit (apples, pears or quince) can be a bit laborious. Traditionally, the fruit is cut into tiny (1/8 inch) cubes, not quite brunoise. I do this all by hand (no chopper/slicer). I put on some music while I peel and cut away until I have what I need. The cut quince goes into the pot with brandy, a sweet white wine, brown sugar, apricot jam and molasses. Along with that, I add the key spices – cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean, whole nutmeg, ground clove, and strips of orange and lemon zest. And then I let it cook, very, very slowly, infusing the spices and flavors while letting the quince cook until tender, but not falling apart. This can take up to 3 hours depending on the amount of quince you’re working with. After cooking, it’s flavorful, but not ready. Time in the refrigerator – up to 2 weeks – will build the flavor, allowing the spices to meld and more deeply infusing the quince. Time and patience will result in a mince that has a powerful flavor.
I’ve found mince to be a versatile compote. Of course pie is an obvious use. I like to make miniature tarts with it or just eat it on its own. It’s fabulous on top of ice cream and it’s a flavorful addition to a cheese plate in place of a chutney. And best, it can hold in the fridge for several weeks, getting better with age.
You can substitute the quince with a tart apple (Pippin or Granny Smith) or pears that are firm and slightly unripe. As it cooks slowly, you may need to add additional liquid (wine, brandy or water), so that it doesn’t get too dry. When it’s finished cooking, there will be just a small amount of liquid (less than 1/2 cup) left in the pot.
6 cups diced quince (8-10 quince)
1 cup dried currants
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3-4 tablespoons molasses
1/2-3/4 cup white wine (such as Riesling)
1/2 cup brandy
4 tablespoons apricot jam
4 strips orange peel
4 strips lemon peel
3 cinnamon sticks
1 whole nutmeg, broken into 4 pieces
1/2 vanilla bean split
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
2 star anise
Put all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting, just so that the liquid is lightly simmering, and cook for 1-3 hours. The quince should be tender, but not soft. Cool the mince and then store it in the refrigerator. Do not remove the whole spices until you are ready to use it.