Saturday, May 8, 2010

Making the inedible edible, part 1: quinces.

It seems to be a time of year that a lot of people are trying to offload their excess harvest. Our neighbour was more than happy to pass over 3kg of quinces, meaning I could finally do what I had been meaning to for years: make quince jelly. Quinces are one of those fruits that are pretty unpalatable when fresh. Out of interest I tried a small bite and it was fibrous and a bit sour. Fortunately, millennia ago some bright spark had the wisdom to try cooking them- and the change is dramatic!
I chopped the quinces into chunks and removed the wormy bits, then covered the chunks (seeds and all) with water plus the zest of one lemon and the juice of two lemons, and started simmering.The really cool think about quinces is that when they're cooked, the flesh changes from white to pink/red. The ever-reliable On Food and Cooking which informed me that quinces contain lots of colourless and bad-tasting tannins which turn into red anthocyanins when heated in acid conditions. This is another great description of the biochemical virtues of quinces.

After a couple of hours my quinces had turned pale pink, and I wasn't sure whether it was enough, but it was late and I was tired, so I set it up to strain overnight through a colander lined with muslin. I got 2L of cloudy pink juice (cloudy even without squeezing the muslin) so I wasn't feeling too happy about my prospects!! (Which is why I didn't take any more photos until the end!) But I went on, adding 2kg sugar to the juice, and starting it simmering. Now came the tricky bit- working out how long to simmer for to reach setting point. Joy of Cooking said 10 minutes, this site said 20. The last time I tried to make jelly, I missed the setting point, and ended up with toffee, so I was ultra-cautious this time: every five minutes, I dripped a small bit of the liquid onto a cold plate to see if it would set. Finally, after not 10, not 20, but 40 minutes, I had reached the setting point, and it was time to pour my jelly into sterilised jars* and cross my fingers.

I was over the moon the next morning when I discovered that I did indeed have quince jelly- clear and red, and the right balance of firm and soft to be spreadable. It has to be one of the most beautiful foods, and I will withhold all modesty and say that the taste is awesome!

Postscript: The week after I made this I decided I'd had enough of trying to guess setting points, and bought a candy thermometer!

*To sterilise jars, I fill them with a centimetre of water and microwave them without the lids until it's boiling. I then put the lids on and leave them for a while, with the idea that the steam will sterilize the lids, and then tip out the water and put the jars in a 120C oven with the lids ajar to dry. In this case I had my jars lined up in a roasting tin which was a good way to shift 8 jars in and out of the oven, and also to catch the slops when I filled them.

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