I confess that I didn’t like Membrillo (pronounced mem-BREE-yo) the first time I tried it. It was on display in the cheese shop next to the Marcona almonds and the Manchego, and I bought it because I’m the kind of girl who can’t resist things like fancy almonds and imported quince paste. I served it at a party with cheese and grapes and little stuffed mushroom canapés and then promptly forgot about it as I got caught up in the craziness that is my kitchen during a party. The next afternoon, when I groggily dragged myself from a very wine-soaked slumber to survey the damage, I noticed the sticky square of membrillo sitting nearly intact amid the mess of bread crumbs and brie rinds. I used a sort-of clean knife to slice myself a sliver and tasted it.
It was gross. Cloying and muddy, with an unpleasant grainy texture; nothing at all like the sweetly floral jelly I’d read about. “Ugh!” I speared it with the same sort-of clean knife, dropped it into the container it came in, and shoved it into a back corner of the fridge until a year or so later when I moved and finally threw it away.
Fast-forward to last Wednesday. I was browsing the selection at the office farmer’s market when I came across a bowl of giant apples covered in what appeared to be Christmas tree flocking.
“What are these fuzzy giant apples?” I asked the farmer’s market lady.
“Oh,” she said, “those are quince.”
She then proceeded into an explanation that I ignored because nobody needs to tell me what quince is! Quince is Apple and Pear’s ancient cousin. Quince is what Eve gave Adam. I may not have known what they looked like *in real life*, but I certainly knew what they were.
“I’ll take these three big ones,” I said and happily returned to my desk with my bag full of fuzzy giant apples.
All day long, the surprisingly strong fragrance teased me. I kept leaning down to inhale the perfume of apples and flowers and roses and perhaps even a little hint of history. When I got home, I dropped the paper bag on the coffee table and within hours our entire apartment had taken on the beautiful aroma of the quince. I was overcome with a desire to bottle the scent; a wish to preserve it somehow. I wanted to cook with them, but I knew neither pies nor tarts would work to preserve that incredible smell. And then I remembered membrillo. That disgusting sticky sugary brick was really just a paste of cooked down quince. But I knew that what I’d tried at first could not have come from the fragrant globes sitting on my kitchen counter. Someone, somewhere, must have done something wrong.
And so I decided to do it right.
You only need a few things to make your own quince paste. A few quince, of course, a vanilla bean, a lemon, some sugar, and water. Oh, and time. Membrillo isn’t hard to make, but it does take several hours and patience
Oh and can I tell you the most exciting part? Though the quince start out a kind of golden yellow shade, after a couple hours of cooking they suddenly turn this deep ruby red. It’s incredible! If you have kids, this would be a great time to pull them into the kitchen. They’ll love it!
And the results are gorgeous. A deep wine-colored paste that slices easily and tastes heavenly with slices of salty cheese. Traditionally it goes with Manchego, the Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, but I love it with mozzarella or cream cheese. The taste is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and the lemon juice adds brightness that wakes up the naturally honeyed tones. Think of a cross between dried figs and cranberries, but with the soft texture of jelly candy.
To serve, slice the paste into thin rectangles and pair with equal sized pieces of cheese. This combination is known in the Spanish-speaking world as “Romeo y Julieta” and can also be made using candied guava shells or candied papaya. It is wonderful as a lazy dessert with a glass of wine, or as breakfast with a cup of tea and a buttery croissant. For fun, I cut a few pieces and tossed in granulated sugar. They look like little jewels and are a nice little treat to slip in your mouth during that 4 o’clock hour that always seems to drag so. I plan on experimenting further, perhaps dunking a few of those little gems in a bit of dark chocolate or using the reserved simmering liquid to make ice cream.
Membrillo Recipe (Quince Paste Recipe)
Don’t worry about how many quince you have. The recipe is based on proportions, so whether you have two quince or 27, this will work. I used three grapefruit-sized quince to make one 8”x8”x1” sheet of quince paste.
Vanilla beans, split (use about 1 bean for every 4-5 quince, but feel free to use more or less)
Rind of 1 lemon, in strips.
Wash and scrub your quince thoroughly, being sure to remove all of the fuzz. Quarter and core, but don't peel. Place in a large pot and cover with water until it comes up about one inch above the fruit. Add the lemon peel and vanilla beans.
Let boil for approximately one hour or until the quince are fork-tender.
Remove from heat and use a slotted spoon to remove the quince to a bowl. Pour out the the water you boiled the quince in and reserve.
Use a spoon or your fingers to remove the peel from the quince (UPDATE: if desired; I just leave it in now and find that it cooks down completely). Add these to the reserved quince water. (You won't need this for the membrillo paste, but you will if you plan on making my still-to-come Quince Ice Cream recipe!)
Now use a food mill or hand blender to completely puree the cooked quince.
Use measuring cups to measure the pureed quince and then mix this with equal amounts of sugar. For example, if you have 3.5 cups of puree, mix with 3.5 cups of sugar. Add one teaspoon of lemon juice for each cup of puree. Scrape out the seeds from the boiled vanilla beans and add. Mix well and return to the pot.
Place over medium heat, cover, and let simmer for 2 to 3 hours, stirring frequently to keep from burning. I've found that a splatter guard or a sheet of foil poked with holes is really helpful here to keep the hot fruit from burning your arms or getting all over your stove. The paste will be ready once it has thickened, has turned a deep ruby or wine color, and takes on the fragrance of a mulled cider.
Line a baking dish with parchment paper (the size is determined by how much paste you have) and butter well. Pour the paste into the dish and use a spatula to smooth the top.
You have two options here. You can either cover the paste with a second layer of parchment paper and then refrigerate it overnight, or you can let it dry out in the oven a bit longer. The latter results in a thicker paste with a deeper color, but both come out lovely.
The oven method:
Place into a warm oven (about 200 degrees) with the fan on if you have one or with the open door open just a crack. Let dry for 2 hours in the oven, then pull out and invert onto a baking sheet. Peel off the layer of parchment and let cool completely.
Once cool and dry, wrap in parchment and foil and keep in the fridge. This will keep well for at least one year.