Quince tarte tatin

But what I am of opinion the governor should eat now in order to preserve and fortify his health is a hundred or so of wafer cakes and a few thin slices of conserve of quinces, which will settle his stomach and help his digestion ~ Don Quixote

I'm a firm believer of less being more in the dessert world, that the simplest creations often far outshine the intricate, fiddly ones. I'd far rather tuck into a piece of treacle tart, a crumble or a sticky toffee pudding than any kind of fancy French patisserie, smothered in ganache and spun sugar and delicately piped cream. Where many cooks and bloggers see macarons as the ultimate in culinary challenges, the Everest that simply must be scaled, I see them as encapsulating everything I hate about that type of baking: fussy, fiddly, cutesy, overdecorated. I admit that I've never tasted a macaron, but I have no need to - I know that it would never match up to even an average sticky toffee pudding.

The simple marriage of butter, flour, sugar and perhaps a few other choice flavourings - spices, fruit, nuts - is one that will last me a lifetime of enjoyment. No need for anything fancier.

Note, however, that I am not condemning French desserts with the above. In fact, I am about to sing the praises of one: the humble tarte tatin.

I can't actually say 'tarte tatin' any more, after watching Masterchef. Every time I open my mouth to say the words, all I hear is Gregg Wallace's interesting interpretation of its pronunciation: "TATTATTAN" (spoken at top booming volume and preferably with a mouth full of pudding). I then lose all faith in my own ability to pronounce French, and come out with something along the lines of "taahhtattan".

No matter, though, because even if you can't pronounce it, you can still enjoy what has to be one of the greatest culinary inventions known to man.

The best tarte tatin I have ever eaten was at a little bistro in Nice. It was deservedly popular, packed with French people spilling out onto its streetside tables in the balmy August evening. It was everything that the ghastly Cafe Rouge restaurant chain pretends to be: local, authentic, quaint, unmistakably French. I remember eating sardine escabeche, crunching my way accidentally through the heads of the sardines, as they were hidden by the thick red sweet-sour sauce.

But it is the tart that really stands out in my memory. It was served piping hot from the oven, a very thin layer of pastry absolutely saturated with gorgeous sharp-sweet caramel. It was the apples, though, that struck me - huge great billowing pieces of apple, not like the thinly sliced, neatly arranged pieces you get on a classic French apple tart. These were giant segments, stained a deep burnished gold by the sugar and butter in which they had been bathed. They were juicy, fluffy, sweet and simply wonderful. I would go all the way back to that bistro for another taste of that tarte tatin.

Fortunately, however, last night I came up with something almost as good.

I've had a bowl of glossy, curvaceous quinces in my kitchen for weeks now - I stocked up on them before Christmas, as they last for months and I knew I'd want to cook with them long after they've disappeared from the market. They've been sitting there begging me to use them, and I've been mulling over various quince creations in my mind as possibilities. I still intend to bring those ideas to fruition (pardon the pun), but suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to make a quince tarte tatin.

This was mainly because all my other ideas involved cakes, and I've made a lot of cakes recently. In fact, most dessert recipes that appear on this blog are either cakes, cheesecakes or cobblers, and I thought I should branch out a bit. Plus I've been having a craving for tarte tatin ever since I watched a friend of mine presented with one in a French restaurant when we were skiing in the Alps in December. I sat there eating my ice cream, which paled in comparison to his gorgeous plate of steaming hot apples, pastry and caramel. There's something about this alchemy of ingredients that is just irresistible.

The way the caramel soaks into the pastry, leaving it sodden and sweet on the top and still crunchy and flaky underneath. The contrast between the yielding juicy flesh of the cooked apples and the crunch of the buttery pastry. It really is up there with crumble and sticky toffee pudding in my all-time favourite desserts, and I can't think why I haven't made it more often.

This version is made with quinces, adapted from a recipe by the excellent David Lebovitz. I thought about using half quince and half apple, worried that the perfumed flavour of the quince would be too powerful, but I needn't have worried (in fact my mum, who normally hates quince, loved this).

This is an absolutely incredible dessert, all the better for the sweet, mysterious aroma of quinces. The quince segments are poached to rosy perfection in a syrup of sugar, water, clove, lemon and cinnamon. There's a simple pastry dough that is so easy to make, yet tastes as complex and wonderful as puff pastry, but without the faff. It is buttery, crumbly, crunchy and flaky all at the same time - amazing for something made in under 5 minutes in the food processor.

Instead of making a caramel for the quinces, their poaching syrup is reduced in the tarte tatin pan (you can buy special ones for this purpose, but I just used a frying pan with a removable handle) until it has the consistency of honey. I added a couple of spoonfuls of homemade quince paste to thicken it a little and add an extra intense quince flavour. I was amazed at how buttery and caramelly this tasted when it had soaked into the pastry in the finished tart.


In short: this was fabulous. The sweet, juicy segments of quince with their syrupy coating; the buttery, flaky pastry base...I think this could give that Nicoise tarte tatin a run for its money. Please make it if you find yourself with quinces to use up.

Quince tarte tatin (serves 6):

Adapted from David Lebovitz's recipe, here.

  • 3 large quinces (you might end up with a bit left over - eat them for breakfast on porridge/muesli!)
  • Half a lemon
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 900ml water
  • 100g sugar
  • 140g flour
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 85g cold butter, cubed
  • 3-4 tbsp very cold water
  • 2 tsp quince paste (membrillo) or jelly (optional)
  • You will also need a suitable pan - an ovenproof frying pan around 18-22cm in diameter is ideal

First, poach the quinces. Put the water, sugar, lemon, cinnamon stick and cloves in a large saucepan and bring slowly to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Peel, core and quarter the quinces, then halve each quarter to get eight segments per quince. Drop them into the poaching liquid. Lower the heat to barely a simmer, and place a circle of greaseproof paper with a 1-inch hole in the middle over the water. Cook on a very low heat for an hour or so, until the liquid has turned pink and the quinces are tender. Turn off the heat and leave the quinces in the syrup until you need them.

Next, make the pastry. Put the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor and pulse until you have fine crumbs (or rub the butter in with your fingers, trying to touch it for as little a time as possible). Add the water a tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together and looks like little pebbles. You will have to squash it together with your hands. Form a ball and wrap it in cling film. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to assemble the tart, put about 250ml of the quince poaching liquid along with the quince jelly or paste, if using, in your chosen pan and simmer until it has reduced to a thick syrup (you want a layer about 5mm deep on the base of the pan). Pre-heat the oven to 190C.

Lay the quince segments, drained, over the bottom of the pan, curved side down in a circle. Try and squish them together as much as possible so there are no gaps. You may not need all the quince segments. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to a circle slightly bigger than the pan, and lay it over the quinces, tucking it in all around the edges (this will be the best bit of the whole dessert, where the pastry edges are saturated in caramel!)

Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and golden and the caramel is bubbling around the sides. Remove and allow to cool for about 15-20 minutes before putting a plate over the top of the pan and turning it upside down to release the finished tart (you might have to shake it a bit to loosen it).

Serve warm with ice cream, creme fraiche or cream.

Five things I love this week #3

There's a definite autumnal feel to my 'five things' this week; that much is evident from the muted beige tones of these photos. After a wonderfully warm October, I think I'm finally ready to embrace the onset of autumn, and all the delicious produce it brings with it. 

1. Wild mushroom and truffle risotto. I've been craving risotto ever since I had a beautiful starter at the Yorke Arms last week: truffled partridge boudin with ceps and carnaroli rice. The rice was a gorgeous risotto-like concoction, heady with the musky fragrance of truffle, the rice still with a little bite to it, creamy and savoury and incredibly delicious. I couldn't ignore my truffle/risotto cravings any longer, and succumbed with this lovely recipe. 

It's a standard risotto to which I added chopped chestnut mushrooms when frying the onion and garlic; I also used soaked porcini mushrooms and added their soaking water to the chicken stock used to plump up the rice. The risotto is finished off with some pan-fried girolle and shiitake mushrooms (shockingly expensive, but a nice little luxury, and so much more interesting to eat and look at than standard mushrooms), a drizzle of truffle oil, lots of lemon thyme leaves and a hefty grating of parmesan. Savoury, umami-rich wonderfulness. 

2. Pumpkins and winter squash. It's easy to just pick up the knee-jerk butternut when planning winter squash recipes, but the other day I discovered these beauties at the farmers market. I think the pale blue one is a Crown Prince squash; the others I'm not too sure about. 

I cut them all into chunks (risking life and limb and a hernia in the process; who needs a gym when you can spend an evening hacking your way through an unyielding orb of orange?) and roasted them with olive oil, salt, pepper and lots of chopped fresh rosemary. They softened into intensely flavoursome, sweet, fudgy deliciousness. Their flesh was much more dense and full-flavoured than your standard butternut squash, while the skin went beautifully dark and caramelly. 

I served them alongside roast partridge (recipe to come) and also mixed them with some couscous, feta and cherry tomatoes for a salad. Winter squash are great with anything salty, like bacon, feta or goats cheese. The possibilities are pretty much endless. I'm definitely going to seek out different kinds of squash in future (and perhaps an axe to chop them with). 

3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.

4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.

5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.

While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.

Quince sorbet

I know it is bad, but I do occasionally succumb to the allure of the impulse buy. The odd top or pair of trousers here and there. A new eyeliner. A very nice tweed-patterned scarf from Zara on Regent Street. An ice cream machine. Perhaps this last one isn't something you generally associate with impulse-buying, but then again, most people aren't as greedy and as gastronomically obsessed as I am. When the Arts and Humanities Research Council decided to fund my MA, I'm sure they intended the money to cover such necessities (thank you, AHRC). 

Recently I've been longing more and more for the capability to make my own ice cream. I partly blame Masterchef for this, proffering the likes of star anise ice cream (to go with pear tart), but also my own desire for something slightly more exciting to accompany a dessert. Apple crumble and ginger ice cream, anyone? Orange cake with date and caramel ice cream? Lemon torte with earl grey tea ice cream? All these are now at my fingertips. (Not literally, unfortunately).

They're not far off, though. I love this little machine. It's a Kenwood. We have a big Kenwood mixer at home, with a separate ice cream attachment, and this self-contained machine seems tiny in comparison. However, it's a great size to fit in the freezer and actually makes a surprising amount of ice cream - one litre, which is the average size of a supermarket tub anyway. A bargain, I think, for £23.

So, tonight I decided to give it a test run, by making some quince sorbet. As my mum said, "Well, I didn't think you'd start with vanilla." She is quite right - not when I have four quinces in the fridge (I keep a permanent supply on standby at the moment, such is my love for them). It's unconventional, and it features one of my favourite fruits: a clear choice. A good one, too - the end result is delicious. It looks and tastes creamy, even though there is no cream involved. In fact, it contains just three ingredients: 300g sugar, dissolved in 500ml water to make a syrup, into which go about a kilo of quinces, peeled, cored and chopped. Simmer until very tender then puree with a stick blender and pass through a sieve. Leave to cool before churning. 

I think it would be nice to serve alongside something richer - perhaps pistachio ice cream, or some form of pastry. Quinces have such a sweet, perfumed flavour that I think you need something richer and more earthy to balance it. It does make a great palate cleanser though and is lovely after a substantial dinner. 

I feel like the world of ice cream is my oyster.

Lamb and quince tagine, and twice-cooked pears

If I ever find myself getting married, I hope it is a marriage like that of lamb and quinces: sweet, warm, rich, satisfying, perfectly balanced, slightly exotic, complementary to both parties, and never boring. (Just right with a bit of coriander; requiring a sharp knife; inedible when raw; only achievable during certain seasons - I think the marriage analogy falls down a bit here. Although I can tell you now that I refuse to marry anyone who doesn't like coriander). 

I've cooked lamb and quince tagine before, but this is a different recipe, from Nigel Slater's new book. It's basically the same as the one I usually use (Claudia Roden), except involves fresh ginger rather than ground. I think I actually prefer the fresh; it's more flavoursome. This is probably because I put in a piece about the size of my face. It mellows in the cooking process though (fortunately). The end result is fabulous: a fragrant, rather sweet sauce, lamb so tender you could swallow it without chewing, and soft, perfumed quinces. Just the thing to make the kitchen smell wonderful and inviting in the rather wintry weather we've been having lately. 

Tagines are generally very easy to make. Brown some diced lamb shoulder in a pan, remove and set aside. Add sliced onion and soften. Return the lamb to the pan, add a cinnamon stick, a generous amount of salt, a big pinch of saffron and a thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped. Pour in a couple of tablespoons of honey and cover the lamb with water. Partially cover with a lid and leave for at least an hour and a half - I left mine for two and a half. 20 minutes before you want to eat, peel, core and slice two large or three small quinces and add them to the pan until they are soft (don't stir too much or they'll disintegrate). Add more water/reduce the sauce to get it to the right consistency (I usually find that although it looks like a lot you can never have enough sauce, so more is better), stir in lots of chopped coriander, and serve with couscous. 

For dessert, pears. Conference and Comice. Peeled, cored and poached in a sugar syrup until approaching softness, then placed in the oven with a trickle of maple syrup and some vanilla extract until golden. Just right with some vanilla ice cream - you don't want to eat anything too filling after a tagine. Oddly, they tasted exactly like tinned pears, just a bit more maple-y. Maybe I shouldn't bother with the effort of peeling and coring nine pears next time, and instead just use the tinned variety...

Autumn fruits and their perfect partners

I was going to start this post by declaring that I am a happier person when both figs and quinces can be found in the market. However, I realise that is not strictly true. I am, in fact, a more anxious person - anxious that their short season will be over before I can exploit them to their full potential. I've already devoted at least two whole posts to the magnificence of such fruits - they seem exotic and otherworldly, somehow, yet both grow quite happily on our own English soil - so will spare you the raptures. Instead, I will write about a meal that did actually make me a happier person, comprising as it did both figs and quinces and ticking another of the "things I want to try with figs and quinces" list. 

I set out for the market intending to purchase a nice fat chicken with which to make a fig and walnut tagine. Unfortunately, lack of said chicken meant I had to compromise. I would go as far as to say that this was in fact infinitely better than compromise - it was improvement. I ended up with a shoulder of lamb on the bone, a cut I don't normally use, preferring to use diced shoulder in a tagine or casserole. However, I figured I could still incorporate elements of the originally intended tagine: I rubbed the lamb with saffron, cinnamon and ginger mixed with olive oil. It went in a hot (240C) oven for 15 minutes and then I turned it down to 160C and let it cook away for a couple of hours. How long exactly I am not sure - as long as it took for me to read a few pages of Gifford's Dialogue Concerning Witches and decide that it was too late in the day to be reading annoying early modern script where all the S's look like Fs.

Next, some couscous stirred up with the seeds of half a pomegranate. The pomegranates I found at the market today are truly fine specimens, infinitely better than the watery, pale pink and slightly bitter versions I've been putting up with so far this autumn. The seeds of these have a real sweet sourness to them and are a beautiful vibrant colour. I also put some crumbled walnuts into the couscous. For the last five minutes of cooking, I put some halved figs into the roasting tray with the lamb and drizzled over some honey. The shredded lamb meat went in with the couscous with the figs on the side. They had turned molten and scarlet, almost the colour of the pomegranate seeds, and went beautifully with the lamb. I'd forgotten how much I love lamb shoulder cooked on the bone; the meat is sublime and so versatile. 

For dessert. something from the new Nigel Slater book, Tender II. This book is enough to bring me to the verge of tears because I don't have Mr Slater's metabolism. There are enough recipes for pies, crumbles and tarts in there to guarantee I'd never see my hipbones again. How he manages it, I really don't know, especially because he recommends serving everything with "cream: thick, yellow, unpasteurised". The photo for the recipe of "soft quinces under a crisp crust" simply looked too good to resist.

Said crisp crust is a mixture of brown sugar, flour, butter, brown breadcrumbs and ground almonds. It is a bit like the pear betty topping I made a few weeks ago; much crunchier and more buttery than a traditional crumble topping, I think it will be my new blanket with which to wrap up warm fruits. The quinces are sauteed into soft, golden tenderness with butter, sugar and lemon juice and then baked under the crumble for half an hour or so. I put a pear in with the quinces just for a difference in flavour and texture. They go rather well together, which makes sense, seeing as they are quite similar in shape. 

I must say, however, that the task of peeling, halving, quartering, coring and slicing four large quinces is enough to mean I probably don't need to do any arm-based weightlifting at the gym tomorrow. Especially with a blunt knife. I can almost see why so many people overlook these fine fruits: preparation is a faff and a half. 

But so, so worth it, however, when you bite into that mouthful of perfumed, buttery, juicy fruit and its crunchy topping, with hints of treacle from the dark brown sugar used and little nuggets of toasted breadcrumb. I might have to make this one again; it is beautiful. As are its colours, which I think look like autumn in a bowl.

So there we have it. Two of my favourite things, and some excellent other things with which to partner them to maximise their full potential. Delicious.

An ode to the humble quince

"They call for dates and quinces in the pastry" 
~ Romeo and Juliet

Whenever I am cooking with quinces, it is inevitable that one of my housemates will ask what they are, and then remark that they've never tried one. I was on the Waitrose forum (OK, I am slightly ashamed to admit that...let's just move on) last autumn, and someone was asking whether Waitrose would be stocking quinces this year (autumn is British quince season). Their head of customer whatever replied that no, they would not, as there's not enough demand for them.
I find it hard to see why. They are the most luscious of fruits. Well, no, the Alphonso mango is probably the most luscious of fruits. But the quince comes a close second. It is absolutely divine. I would quite like to convert the entire world to eating quinces like they do cooking apples. Or just hoard them all for myself.

They are probably best described as a sort of cross between an apple and a pear - some are quite pear-shaped, others more squat, and their flavour has the perfume of pears and the sweetness of apples. You can't eat them raw, as they are rock solid and sour, but when you bake them, something magic happens - their flesh goes soft like a Bramley apple and they taste of honeyed loveliness. Not a very technical description I know, but you'd have to taste one to find out - I recommend you do. They have a lovely grainy texture which goes really well with soft meat in a tagine, or smooth vanilla ice cream as a dessert. If you cook them for long enough, they turn bright red - I remember Nigella has a lovely recipe for red quinces with pomegranate seeds on top. A scarlet feast of fruity delight.

There's all sorts of fun mythology surrounding the quince. It has been suggested that cultivation of the fruit preceded cultivation of the apple, so references to apples in early literature (the garden of Eden...the golden apple that Paris gave to Aphrodite) may actually refer to quinces. In medieval times, to give a quince to a lady was a declaration of love, and Plutarch reports that Greek brides used to nibble them before entering the bridal chamber to ensure their kiss was not "unpleasant". In Slavonia, Croatia, when a baby is born, a quince tree is planted as a symbol of fertility. 

The word 'marmalade' comes from marmelo, the Portuguese for quince, and so marmalade was originally a quince jam. That's just one of the things you can do with quinces - make membrillo, as the Spanish call it - quince paste. It's delicious with cheese or roasted meat such as lamb or pheasant, and I also quite like it on toast. I made it a few terms ago, and probably won't do so again - it was incredibly labour intensive, involving pushing quinces through a sieve to get a tiny amount of puree which was then mixed with equal amounts of sugar, boiled until gelatinous, then set like jam. Admittedly it was superb, especially with a chunk of crusty bread and some strong goats cheese, but in future I reckon I'll just buy it ready-made...especially as I never even got to finish the amount I made before it developed a "little furry jacket" (my mum's way of referring to mould) in the fridge. Rubbish.

The quince tree is native to Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Pakistan, but has been introduced to all sorts of places, especially the Med and the middle East. They're used a lot in middle Eastern cooking, either as a dessert or with meat such as lamb. I can think of endless uses for this goddess of fruits, but a few of my favourites are: served as a dessert, sliced and poached in a lemon and vanilla infused syrup; baked and served with ice cream; sliced and added to a lamb tagine (absolutely sublime); my stuffed pheasant recipe from a couple of weeks ago; in a compote with rosemary, served with roasted venison steaks; baked and stuffed with minced lamb, onions, pine nuts and cinnamon. It's also good in an apple or pear crumble, adding a fragrant note. Next time I can get my hands on some more quinces (at the moment they're hard to find, though there are some Turkish ones around, if you're prepared to pay £2 a fruit, or so...which I am) I want to try a quince crumble. Every time I spot some at the grocer's, my heart flutters a little. Shakespeare and I were clearly on the same page (no pun intended) - I would definitely call for dates and quinces in my pastry. In fact, I might try some date and quince turnovers. With filo pastry. Yum.

So I found a couple of joyous fruits in Cambridge while I was home for easter, and decided to make the aforementioned stuffed quinces. Sliced in half, baked until soft, then the inside scooped out and added to a mixture of lamb mince, chopped onion, pine nuts, cinnamon and allspice, which is then put back in the fruit and baked for another half hour or so. I served it with spinach and couscous, though a rice pilaff might also have been nice, or some chickpeas.

To paraphrase Edward Lear:

"We dined on mince, and slices of quince, which we ate with a runcible spoon"

No idea what a runcible spoon is. I suspect Lear didn't either. But the quince tasted nice.