Tonight I’m watching the first snow of the year flutter in damp fat flakes past the street lamp outside my front window. Oh, hey, look! It’s snowing on the blog here too. Fun, huh? Winter is finally at our doorstep. Seasonal local eating will become a bit of a challenge over the next five months. But that’s where the beauty of putting up jars of this and that and stockpiling root vegetables and winter squash comes in.
One bunch of jars I put up in my cupboard earlier this autumn was of beautiful golden Quince Jam. This project, my first time working with quince, was a very special one for me. Just as with the Pickled Pears last year, mastering quince jam was something I wanted to do for my grandmother. The mere mention of quince brings this amazing sparkle to my 90 year old grandmother’s eyes. She remembers eating it as a child when aged quince trees were still commonly found in the backyards of most farmhouses.
Quince trees are no longer all that common, at least not where I live. In fact, I had never laid eyes on a quince until last autumn when I saw some while working at Longwood Gardens. At that time, I wasn’t smart enough to realize I had the perfect opportunity right before me to make a very special gift for my grandmother. Of course, this autumn, when the quince ripened and became fragrant (though they stay rock hard even when ripe) in October, I made sure to grab a bag and go harvest a bunch from that very same tree.
Now, a quick technical discussion on quince might be helpful. There are actually two different main categories of quince out there: the kind grown for its fruit crop (Cydonia oblonga) and the kind grown for its breathtaking flowers in the very early spring (Chaenomeles speciosa). The flowers of the former one are so-so and the fruit of the latter is, well, so-so, as I discovered. Don’t get me wrong, I’d pick the Chaenomeles (flowering quince) over the Cydonia any day because the fruit is still very tasty, just more of a pain to work with since it’s much smaller and not as prolific as the quince bred for eating. With the flowering quince, you get both a beautiful ornamental plant and a delicious edible harvest. For this recipe, I used the Chaenomeles, but most quince recipes are calling for the Cydonia so be aware of that if the recipe you are using calls for a certain number of quince…Cydonia fruit is much larger than Chaenomeles fruit.
Back to the fun stuff. This jam is really unique and I now understand why my grandmother giggles at the memory of it. The quince has an unmistakable texture – a crunch even after extensive stewing – and a very bright tingly flavor that is unlike any other fruit I’ve tasted. By the way, you really shouldn’t eat quince raw. You might break a tooth for starters and the flavor of a raw quince is apparently very astringent. I absolutely fell in love with having this jam over a warm slice of multi-grain toast. Unlike most jams, this one isn’t overly sweet and that, coupled with the chunky texture, makes it feel like something of substance rather than just another sugary breakfast spread.
I really can’t wait to give a large jar of Quince Jam to my grandmother for Christmas later this month and watch the sparkle spring up in her eyes. We’ll have thick slices of toast and jam together and laugh at all the grandkids running around with their freshly unwrapped toys. What food gifts are you giving for the holidays this year?
Adapted from Simply Recipes
3 1/2 cups water
2 T. lemon juice
zest of one lemon
3 1/2 cups sugar
*The quince I use are from the “flowering quince” tree (Chaenomeles speciosa) and are about the size of a small lemon (minus the pointy ends). The quince you might buy in a supermarket or farmers market are often from the “fruiting quince” tree (Cydonia oblonga) so they are larger, nearly the size of apples. If you are making jam with the latter variety, use only about 4 fruits or enough to make 4 cups of grated quince.
Prepare the quince by washing and cutting in half. Remove core, seeds, and any blemished bits. Rinse and do not peel. Use a large chopping knife to mince up the quince into small bits or use a food processor if you have one. You should end up with about 4 packed cups of minced quince.
(Place two small ceramic plates in the freezer if you are new to jam making and want help determining if it’s cooked long enough to set up.)
Put water in a large heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the grated quince, lemon juice and lemon zest. Reduce heat and simmer until the quince is soft, about 10 minutes.
Add the sugar, stir well, and bring to a boil again. Keep stirring until all of the sugar is dissolved. Lower the heat to medium high. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally until quince jam turns pink and thickens to desired consistency, about 30-50 minutes. If using the cold plate method, remove one plate from the freezer and dab a little hot jam onto it. Wait a few seconds and then run your finger through it. If the streak your finger makes stays put, your jam is ready. If it merges back together, you need to cook for a few more minutes and then test again with the second cold plate. If you like a less chunky jam, use a potato masher to smooth out the texture a bit.
Place a sterilized jar into a small bowl so you don’t have to handle the hot glass and to catch any major spills. Ladle jam into sterilized jars. Before applying the lids, sterilize them by placing in a bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Use tongs to remove each lid from the water as you need it. Be sure to wipe the rims of the jars very clean before applying the lids and screwing on tight. Turn jars upside down and cover with a dish towel. After a bit, you should start hearing the lids pop, indicating they’ve sealed. When jars are cool, turn upright and test the lids by pressing on them. If they don’t have any “give”, they are sealed. If they spring back, they haven’t sealed and you’ll need to store the jar in the fridge.
(makes about 3 half pints)