Pretty much everyone has their weakness when it comes to fruits and vegetables. You can spot these weaknesses at the grocery store. Just keep your eyes open for someone filling their shopping cart with unseemly amounts of, say, mandarin oranges, or burying the check-out counter under absurd amounts of mirabelle plums. I happen to have several of these weaknesses: peas, pomegranates, sour cherries, blood oranges, and quinces. Luckily their seasons are spread out, so I almost always have something to obsess over. At the moment, I've been stalking the greengrocers in search of perfectly ripe quinces, preferably cheap ones.
For something that is both inedible in its raw form and extremely hardy, quinces are generally hugely overpriced. Perhaps it is because of their relative semi-obscurity that grocers are able to sell them as something exotic. $3.00 a piece is far too much for a fruit that would, and should, grow in any Quebec garden. I am willing to pay for fragile fruits shipped for miles and miles from the tropics, but not quinces. Quinces are a magical fruit, and their scent alone is worth any price, but I was pretty happy last Saturday when I found a place selling them for $1.00 each. I bought 20.
At Christmastime, I place a few quinces around the house and wait for their amazing scent to reach every corner, one that is nicely offset with the scent that comes from oranges studded with cloves. But you shouldn't leave it at that. You have to cook quinces to discover their full potential. Recently, I've been busy putting away several jars of quince-hazelnut preserve and spiced quince butter. I can think of no better holiday condiment. Ooh, the butter spread on pannetone. A must.
Last year I made the quince paste from Chez Panisse's fruit cookbook. It was a big hit with guests. We served it as a sweet after dinner, but it is equally excellent with cheese, or champagne--or both. I made another batch this year, with even better results. Don't be afraid of overcooking the fruit, that's essentially what you want. This will keep for a year in an airtight container.
3 lbs. quinces, peeled, cored, and diced *
3 cups water
2 cups sugar, plus more for dusting
juice of one lemon
Bring quinces to a boil in the water until they are very soft. Pass through a mill or sieve.
Add sugar to puree and simmer on medium heat, stirring constantly. I recommend using a bigger pot than you need to prevent getting a thousand tiny burns on your hands. The mixture will thicken and bubble a lot. Be careful. Cook until it can be mounded up in a pile, about 45 min. Add lemon juice and pour onto an oiled piece of parchment paper in a tray. Smooth out to 1/4" thick. Let cool. Reverse it onto a new piece of parchment paper and let dry overnight. Cut into squares and toss in sugar. Store in an airtight container.
Note: My paste was still a little sticky after one night. I cut it into squares, tossed it in sugar and let it dry overnight again. Now they are perfect.
* If you are super industrious, you will save the peels and cores and make quince jelly. I have yet to be so industrious.