A couple of weeks ago, something magical occurred in my kitchen. Craving a warm, comforting pudding and wondering what to do with a quince hanging around in my fridge, I poached the fruit in a spiced sugar syrup and caramelised it, along with juicy chunks of ripe pear, in a hot pan. I added a little quince jelly, which melted into an amber syrup as it hit the surface of the pan, and bubbled in a splash of honeyed dessert wine. I tumbled this sticky, golden mixture into a baking tin, luscious juices clinging to the fruit, and topped it with a buttery crumble mixture flecked with crunchy almonds. Thirty-five minutes later, the best crumble I've ever had emerged from the oven.
I've eaten a lot of crumbles in my life, some conventional - apple, rhubarb, gooseberry - some slightly less so (pineapple and coconut; peach and blueberry; pear, raspberry and chocolate). I feel I have the perfect crumble down to a fine art, or perhaps a science - there are certain variables involved and getting the formula exactly right is important. You need the topping to have a bit of crunch beyond the butter: jumbo oats, perhaps, or nuts, or even seeds. The filling needs to be on the sharp side, to give that glorious tongue-tingling contrast between the buttery topping and the tangy fruit - fruits like apricots and peaches are a little too sweet on their own, so require the addition of berries, I find. You also need a decent amount of fruity syrup to soak into the bottom of the crumble topping, so if you use fruits that don't exude a lot of juice (again, peaches/apricots are a good example), you need to add a little liquid: honey, dessert wine, or maple syrup can all be used to good effect. Similarly, the fruit should be soft - it needs to yield with zero resistance to the gentle pressure of a spoon. Only the topping should be crunchy in a crumble, not the fruit. Finally, the topping should complement the fruit: use spices and nuts accordingly. Pecans or hazelnuts go very well with pears or apples; almonds work well with rhubarb; apricots and peaches love the presence of pistachios.
This crumble occurred at the perfect intersection of all these factors. The topping was luscious and crunchy with almonds and a little cinnamon (I used gluten-free flour as I had a coeliac friend coming round, but I actually think this made the topping better and more crunchy); the fruit had softened to meltingly tender perfection and was sharp and sweet from the addition of dessert wine and quince jelly; the wine and jelly bathed the fruit in a glorious syrup that bubbled up around the topping. It was buttery and sweet and honeyed and perfumed with the fragrance of quince and pear and sweet wine. Honestly, it was just the best crumble I have ever had. You can't say fairer than that.
I realise not everyone has quinces lying around, but I think this would work well with all pears instead of the quince. You can obviously use normal or spelt flour instead of gluten-free (but having tried both extensively, I actually think GF flour gives a better texture), and if you don't have quince jelly or dessert wine just splash in a bit of honey or maple syrup. You'll still end up with a fabulous crumble. Perfection.
Caramelised pear, quince and almond crumble (serves 2 generously):
For the crumble topping:
- 80g gluten-free or normal flour
- 40g cold butter, cubed
- 40g demerara sugar
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp mixed spice
- 50g almonds, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp milk or water
For the fruit:
- 1 small quince
- 1 star anise
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 vanilla pod
- 100g caster sugar
- 1 large, just ripe pear
- A knob of butter
- 1 tbsp light brown sugar
- 2 tsp quince paste or jelly
- A splash of dessert wine (optional)
First, prepare the fruit. Peel and core the quince and cut into eight slices. Put in a saucepan and pour over just enough water to cover. Add the star anise, lemon juice, vanilla pod and caster sugar and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Poach the quince on a very gentle simmer, covered, for 30-40 minutes, or until just tender to the point of a knife.
Meanwhile, make the crumble topping. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, almonds and spices. Stir in the milk/water so the mixture turns 'pebbly'. Set aside. Pre-heat the oven to 160C.
When the quince is cooked, heat the knob of butter in a small frying pan with the light brown sugar. Peel and core the pears, then chop them into large pieces, about 1.5 inches. Caramelise in the pan over a medium heat until soft and golden, then add the quinces, drained (reserve the poaching liquid). Cook for a minute or so, then add the quince paste/jelly and 4 tbsp of the poaching liquid, along with the dessert wine. Bubble for another minute, then pour the lot into a small baking dish.
Scatter the crumble topping over the fruit, then bake for 40 minutes until golden and bubbling. Serve with ice cream.