Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The quince tart.

I have a quince tree in my yard. I had never in my life tasted a quince until that tree started fruiting this fall. I picked one of the hard, yellow-green fruits on a crisp October day, took a cautious bite, and OH MY GOD it was awful! Astringent and bitter, it made my mouth pucker and did not inspire me to take another bite. After doing a little research, I discovered that eating quinces raw isn't exactly recommended...

Apparently, quinces need to be cooked for a long time with a load of sugar to make them palatable, but then they can be delicious. They are known for their strong perfumey smell, citrusy taste and blend of bitter and sweet flavors. In fact, marmalade, another bitter-sweet concoction, was originally a quince and honey jam made by the Romans... and was eventually made with citrus fruits many centuries later.

E and I had been invited to dinner by our friends J and K and were given the task of bringing dessert, so we decided to take an experimental route. I found a few recipes for quince tarts, and I devised my own version. First, I chopped up the quinces into 1/4 inch slices, which was actually a pretty tough job since they're such hard and slippery little things! I then simmered them on the stovetop for about an hour with raisins, wine and a quarter cup of sugar.

It's amazing the way quinces change color as they cook! They start out looking like apples and end up this gorgeous, deep, autumnal red. Extra pretty with the raisins mixed in. HOWEVER, at this point the quinces still tasted utterly HORRID. That astringent quality was still there, and it even infected the raisins! I was beginning to have pretty serious doubts about the outcome...

Nevertheless, we went ahead and buttered a pie dish, sprinkled 1/4 cup of sugar in the bottom and filled the dish with the quince/raisin mixture. We sprinkled an additional 1/8 cup of sugar on top. E made a pie crust which was... not pretty. Thankfully, it was going to be on the bottom of the tart when it was presented, so no one would see it. We rolled out the crust and placed it on top of the fruit. We baked at 375 degrees for 1 hour.

The tart looked pretty in its dish as it emerged from the oven, but there was no real way to taste it and test it out... E and I tasted a little piece of the filling that had bubbled up from below the crust, and we both agreed that it tasted downright BAD. We went to bed feeling dejected and feeling a little sick after taking so many tastes of this foul fruit.

The next afternoon we flipped the tart out of its pie dish, and it was really a very attractive dessert! Judging from the taste of the simmered fruit and the bubbled-up filling, though, we assumed the tart was going to taste like absolute hell. We contemplated buying a backup dessert. We also considered the possibility of "tripping" and dropping the tart on the driveway at our friends' house, thereby relieving everyone from the horror of having to taste this abomination.

I think this photo accurately portrays our dread:


Well, there was nothing we could do. We would have felt like cowards buying a backup dessert, and we thought we might hurt ourselves tripping and dropping our horrible tart. So we did the only thing we COULD do... we whipped up a shitload of heavy cream!

We arrived at our friends' beautiful home, feeling a bit sheepish. Upon our entering, J and K sweetly told us how pretty our tart was (the quinces really did turn such a pretty color) and asked us what it was. We made a long disclaimer and explained that dessert was probably not going to be the gastronomic highlight of the evening. (And it wasn't--as our lovely hosts had made an absolutely delicious dinner.) But when we reached that final, dreaded course...

Lo and behold, something magical had happened over the course of the baking and settling overnight, and the quince tart was in fact kinda yummy, especially smothered with whipped cream! It was definitely a strange taste--the quinces had developed a sort of hard/pasty consistency, and still retained some of their bitter flavor. But there was just enough sweet to balance it out, and the raisins helped push the flavor even further toward sweet.

We took a pretty serious Dessert Gamble on the fruit machine, but hit the jackpot!

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