There is something wild and romantic about quince. It strikes me as a fruit from another era, one you are more likely to find in a 17th century landscape or still-life painting than your local supermarket.
It’s always been a favorite fruit of my mother’s. When I was growing up we had a small quince tree in our backyard. I think my dad planted it so my mom could conjure the countryside outside of Chieti, where her family had owned a farm. When the fruit ripened in late fall she made quince jam and jelly, which I loved to put on my morning toast over a thick layer of cream cheese. But something about our 1970s New Jersey backyard didn’t agree with the tree and after awhile it succumbed to disease.
I didn’t start cooking with quince until a couple of years ago when I came across it at the farmers’ market ~ a small bin of beautifully misshapen golden, fragrant fruit. It brought back memories. I bought a few and taught myself to make cotognata, a thick, sliceable paste that is delicious with cheese (the recipe will be in my forthcoming book ~ more about that in the coming weeks).
I now keep an eye out for quince and when I spied some at Wegman’s last week I knew exactly what I wanted to make with it ~ this cake. The recipe comes from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s excellent book Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.
I like cookbooks that you can sink your teeth into, and this book is definitely one of those. The first third is devoted to history, science, culture, and story. Jenkins follows the cultivation of olives and production of oil from ancient Crete right up to the current debate over high-density planting, a fairly new and controversial practice of placing olive trees tightly together to maximize space and efficiency.
She delves into the science behind olive oil ~ its various flavor components and the compounds that make it beneficial ~ and into the cultures that produce it. There are profiles of oil makers from across the Mediterranean and Jenkins’s own story of how she fell into olive oil making herself. She devotes a full chapter to clarifying a number of issues, including the practice of fraud and deception that has tainted the olive oil business, what the term “extra-virgin” really means, and explaining how to choose high-quality oil and use it in everyday cooking and baking.
The book contains a nice range of recipes (many accompanied by gorgeous photos), from olive oil popcorn and eggplant fries to roasted fish and braises of lamb and veal. I made the Spanish potato tortilla for dinner the other night, and other recipes I’ve bookmarked include Shrimp Fritters from the South of Spain, Roasted Red Peppers with Anchovies and Tomatoes, and Slow-Rise Olive Oil Bread with Black Olives.
Among the recipes in the desserts chapter are a handful of olive oil cakes, including this quince cake. The fruit is sliced and poached in syrup, then arranged on the bottom of the baking pan, with batter spread on top. Once baked, the cake is inverted and the fruit becomes a decorative top; the reserved poaching syrup is spooned on top to create a rosy glaze. I love the crumb of this cake; it’s tender and moist thanks to the olive oil and also to a little yogurt mixed in. There’s a generous amount of cardamom, a spice I don’t use often enough.
A word about quince: This is not a fruit that can be eaten out of hand, like its cousins the apple and pear. The flesh is hard and bitter and must be cooked. Peeling, coring, and cutting it takes a bit of elbow grease but you will be rewarded with an alluring floral fragrance as it simmers in the pot. The cooked quince is sweet, with a slightly grainy texture that hovers between apple and pear. Right now we are nearing the end of quince season so if aren’t able to find them you can easily make this cake with apples or firm (not overly ripe) pears.
P.S. Did you know that quince also makes a lovely natural air freshener? Put a quince in your fruit bowl or on the kitchen counter and as it ripens its sweet fragrance will perfume the room.
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Thinking about where to go in 2016? If you’re interested in exploring delicious Italy off the beaten path, consider our Abruzzo Presto/Domenica Cooks culinary tour of Abruzzo in September. This is a week-long tour exploring the food, culture, and landscape of this spectacular region. You can find the details on my tours page, and please feel free to forward the link to friends and family with the travel bug.
This moist and tender cake, made with olive oil and yogurt, is infused with the fragrance of quince. The fruit is poached in syrup before being arranged in the cake pan. Once baked, the cake is glazed with the reserved syrup, which gives it a beautiful russet-pink shine. This recipe is from Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005).
- For the quinces:
- 1 lemon
- 1 pound quinces (3 medium)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and very thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- For the cake:
- Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
- 2 cups cake flour, unbleached if available
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of salt
- 3 large eggs plus 1 yolk
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup Greek-style yogurt
To make the quinces: Grate the zest of the lemon and set aside. Cut the lemon in half and add the juice of half the lemon to a bowl of cool water to make acidulated water for the quinces--it will keep them from turning brown.
Peel and core the quinces and slice all but one of them into wedges. Add the slices to the bowl of lemon water as you go. Chop the final quince into small pieces and add it to the water. This will be mixed into the cake batter.
Combine the sugar, honey, ginger, and cardamom in a saucepan with the lemon zest and the juice of the second lemon half. Add 2 1/2 cups water, bring to a simmer, and add all the quince, both sliced and chopped. Cover and simmer the quince for about 20 minutes, until they are tender all the way through. Remove the quince from the syrup and set aside, separating the chopped pieces from the slices. (I removed and discarded the slices of ginger.) Boil down the syrup until it is thick enough to leave a path when you drag a spatula through it. Refrigerate both the quince and the syrup if you are going to keep them longer than a couple of hours (I did this a day before baking the cake).
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 325 F.
Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper. Arrange the quince slices in a pattern over the bottom of the cake pan.
Sift together in a bowl the flour, ginger, cardamom, baking powder, and salt.
Beat the eggs and yolk briefly in another bowl. Beat in the sugar, a little at a time, until the mixture is fluffy, then beat in the oil and vanilla. Using a spatula, fold in a few tablespoons of the flour mixture and the yogurt. Then fold in the chopped quince and the rest of the flour mixture.
Spoon the cake mixture over the quince slices, transfer the cake pan to the oven, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the cake is golden on top and pulling away from the sides of the pan.
Remove the cake from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool slightly, then invert it onto a serving platter. Remove the paper from the bottom (now the top), leaving the quince slices in place. If the reserved quince syrup has gelled, set it over very low heat until it loosens, then spoon it over the top of the cake, letting it dribble down the sides, to make a glaze.