Inside the cramped little bakery, glass display cases overflowed with coconut-rimmed tarts filled with glistening, red jam, small cookies with deep ruby centers, and an assortment of danishes decorated with the same eye-catching yet unfamiliar topping. According to the shop girl, all of these goodies had one thing in common: membrillo. Anxious to try this mysterious and seemingly ubiquitous red substance, I ordered a handful of cookies and a half dozen pastries – all in the name of research, of course.
I clearly remember thumbing through my pocket Spanish-English dictionary in desperate search of the word “membrillo,” after that first visit to the Argentine bakery. My boyfriend had come up short when I asked for an English translation, and similarly, the answer supplied by my dictionary left me none the wiser.
I worked my way through the letter ‘m’ until my index finger rested upon the following entry:
membrillo m quince
“Quince?” I muttered. I had never even heard of a quince let alone seen or tasted one.
Largely unappreciated in the U.S., this bumpy-looking fruit resembling a pear has been all but forgotten for its lack of sweetness and inedible nature while in its raw state. In fact, American horticulturist U.P. Hedrick lamented in 1922 that “the quince, the ‘Golden Apple’ of the ancients, once dedicated to deities and looked upon as the emblem of love and happiness, for centuries the favorite pome, is now neglected and the least esteemed of commonly cultivated tree fruits.”
It would appear, Mr. Hedrick, that not much has changed since the 1920s.
However, the quince’s fate in Argentina has been a kinder one. Argentina ranks among the world’s top producers of quinces. Indeed, these days, if you do find a quince at a specialty market in North America, chances are that it arrived from Argentina.
The most popular culinary use for quinces in Argentina is quince paste, or dulce de membrillo. Quince paste may be paired with cheese in the typical Argentine dessert known as queso y dulce, or it can be used in the tart pasta frola, atop cookies known as pepas or pepitas, as a filling for pastelitos, or a topping for Argentine pastries (facturas).
Queso y Dulce or Postre Vigilante
Queso y dulce, the simple yet tasty combination of a slice of quince paste topped with a slice of cheese, gained popularity in Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century. The dessert later took on the name “postre vigilante” (policeman’s dessert) in the 1920s, when the owners of a restaurant close to the local police station in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo Viejo noted that the officers’ (informally known as vigilantes) preferred ending to their meal was the cheap and unfussy queso y dulce.
In Argentina, queso y dulce includes a slice of either queso Mar del Plata (a semi-hard, slightly holey cheese also known as pategrás) or queso cremoso (a semi-soft cheese also known as queso fresco or mantecoso). Both of these cheeses are mild in flavor, so as not to compete too much with the flavor of the dulce de membrillo. Get creative with your cheese pairings and invent your own version of queso y dulce to accompany your homemade quince paste!
Dulce de Membrillo (Quince Paste)
Adapted from Epicurious/Gourmet
Mellowed by long, slow cooking and a generous amount of sugar, the raw quince’s firm white flesh softens and deepens to a lovely ruby-red hue while taking on a sweet-tart flavor and lightly floral aroma. The high levels of pectin present in the quince cause the jam/paste to set up very firm, allowing it to be sliced.
4 medium quinces (approximately 2 pounds)
1/4 to 1/2 cup water
2 to 3 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Wash the quinces, gently rubbing the skin to remove the fuzz, and pat dry. Bake the quinces in a small roasting pan tented with foil, for roughly 2 hours or until tender. Once the quinces are cool enough to touch, peel, quarter, and core them.
In a food processor, puree the quinces with 1/4 cup water until smooth (if the mixture is too thick, add the remaining 1/4 cup of water a bit at a time, as needed). Pass the puree through a fine sieve into a liquid measuring cup and measure the amount of puree.
Transfer the puree to a large, heavy saucepan or dutch oven. Add an equivalent amount of sugar (e.g. if you have 2 cups of quince puree, add 2 cups of sugar) plus the lemon juice. Stir to combine the ingredients.
Cook the quince puree, uncovered, over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, until it thickens and develops a deep, ruby-red color, about 2 hours. Pour the puree into a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap, place a second piece of plastic wrap on top of the puree, pressing down and evening out the surface, and cool. Chill the puree overnight. Once the quince paste has set, remove it from the loaf pan.
Quince paste keeps, wrapped well in wax paper and then plastic wrap and refrigerated, for up to 3 months.