I grew up snacking on chewy squares of quince puree, dried to leathery whips by a dear family friend, breakfasting on toast spread with quince jam made by my mother and a Greek colleague, who added blanched almonds to her batches, and finishing dinner with wedges of quivery membrillo eaten alongside pungent cheeses. It wasn't until I moved to New York that I realized quince was considered an exotic fruit.
A few years ago, on a trip up to The Cloisters, I came across a quince tree, laden down with heavy fruit, in one of the interior gardens. I tried to find out who was the lucky harvester of the quinces, hoping against all odds that when my interest was noted by the tree's caretaker, he would exclaim with glee, "Finally, someone who wants those hard, sour things!". It will probably come as no surprise to you that this was not the case. Lucky Met Museum employees were entitled to gathering the fruit and that was that.
So now I buy my quinces at the greenmarket just like everyone else, filling my plastic bag with the fuzzy yellow orbs, letting them sit out for a few days in my kitchen while their perfume fills the air. Last night I decided to try a different way of preparing the fruit, poaching chunks of them in a sweet, spiced syrup until rosy and fork-tender. The syrup ends up very sweet and I urge you to experiment with the amount of sugar you add. I'll be eating the soft quinces with yogurt spooned over them and stirring the syrup into tea.
Poached Quince with Vanilla and Cinnamon
Adapted from Regan Daley's In the Sweet Kitchen
4 cups water, preferably filtered or still spring water
2 cups granulated sugar
1 large cinnamon stick
1/2 plump vanilla bean, split
3 to 4 large quinces
1. Combine the water, sugar, cinnamon stick and vanilla bean in a heavy-bottomed 2 1/2- to 4-quart saucepan. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then bring to a boil and remove from the heat. Peel the quince with a vegetable peeler and cut them into quarters. Cut out the cores and cut each quarter in half.
2. Add the fruit to the syrup. Return the pot to medium-low heat and bring the syrup to just below a boil. Reduce the heat and keep the syrup at a bare simmer for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until a sharp paring knife slips easily into a slice of quince. The quinces will have turned a pale pinkish color. Cool the fruit in the syrup. Refrigerated, the fruit and syrup will keep for a week or more.