Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fruitful Dreaming

Who can ID it?

Recently I've been dreaming about the place I grew up - a rural suburb of Youngstown, Ohio.  
My family owned a quarter acre, which is small potatoes in the midwest, but our neighbors' holdings were in the hundred acre range. The original landowners, the Summers, resided in an 18th century farmhouse on our west. Their farmland was fallow, gone to woods and scrub. On the east, the Wilkerson family ran an active farm, growing corn, wheat, oats and hay, and raising cattle.
From the point of view of a boy who loved science and the out-of-doors, a more ideal environment could scarce be imagined. It's true I would have liked some mountains to climb, but trees sufficed, and with so many plants to learn, animals to hunt and creeks and fields to explore, I rarely noticed.
Childhood is a process of spiraling, ever-outward growth. From the prison of a crib we take longer and longer strides, discovering first the realm of house, then yard, then the neighborhood, finally the places beyond. Each of these is the whole world, until the moment it isn't.  
When I dream of Ohio and those years long gone, I am as ecstatic by what I see as I was the day I saw it the first time.  It is like gliding to the edge of the world, peering beyond the boundary and discovering the unimaginable. In a part of a creek I’d not gone before lies a pool squirming with tadpoles. There, in an outer edge of winter-brown swampland, is a vivid green patch of alfalfa. 
There was a day - it must have been in the fall - I noticed an unusual tree. It was there in a dream two weeks ago, same place - the Wilkerson's fencerow - and vivid as that first viewing; smallish and gnarled, a profile that said, "apple" but leaves which corrected that impression to, "pear." But what, I thought when I worked my way over and stood beneath, a strange pear tree! The fruits were big but almost weightless, and stout in the neck. And the fragrance! How delicious they must be.
What I imagined when I dreamt of quince
I immediately climbed as high as I could (in the dream I flew to the top), plucked what I imagined would be the sweetest fruit, and ran home with it. But when I presented them to my mother, she laughed. "You didn't eat any, did you?" she asked, and when I shook my head no, she suggested I try. What misery - what puckering awfulness! "It's not a pear," Mom said, "that's a quince."
It tasted so awful, she told me, because quince fruit is loaded with alum. That was another word I didn't know, so she pulled down a box of that powder and gave me a fingertip to try. Like the quince indeed - a spontaneous, saliva-draining reaction, the tongue sucking in on itself, the cheeks deflating, the whole face shrinking. "Eww  - what do you use that for?" I demanded. So shocking, to hear her say, "Candy."
Bakers know the truth of tart. The more of it, the more flavor. Think of sour cherries, or rhubarb. Inedible raw, but drop in some sugar and add heat, and how wonderful! Alum, my mother explained, was like that. Locked in its spit-shriveling grip was magic, just waiting to sing when liberated by the power of saccharides! 
I don't remember Mom doing anything with the quinces I brought home, but when I recently dreamed of those days I decided it was time to look for this fruit again.
There were plenty of treats I could imagine. The month being January, and home being a city, I didn't think I'd have much luck foraging the 'hood - at least not for raw quinces. 
I've found big blocks of quince jelly in the Latin American supermarkets here. Probably it was these that got me thinking “Quince,” thus the dream. I love quince jelly in a brioche with walnuts and truffled cheese and consider myself lucky to live where it is abundant. But now I pined for the real, fresh thing.
As urban foragers must, I hunted the aisles of Whole Foods. Sure enough, right above a bin of sugar cane sat the quinces. Being uncertain of a plan I bought just one, then went home to read about them.
Quinces poached a la Daley
The first place I turned was Regan Daley's In The Sweet Kitchen. Daley, it turns out, is a huge fan of this fruit, going so far as to say it would be the one tree she'd demand if marooned on a desert island (how she'd prepare it without heat or sugar she does not say, but a love song to a fruit is allowed poetic license, to my thinking). She exults in the aroma, and goes ecstatic for the taste. Which, naturally, she proceeds to tell us how to unlock.
By the time I got to Daley's book I was already thinking custard, and was more than a little disappointed she didn't give a straight-up, dynamite, stand-alone formula. She did however provide a great generic template for reducing the fruit to syrup and was able to convince me that syrup was the only way to capture the essence of quince.
I Googled Quince Custard, and after sorting through the usual pointlessness, pounced on Eliza Acton's early-1800's recipe, mostly because it was simple. Thinking there had to be something wrong (what in the realm of fancy cooking is ever simple?) I next turned to Michael Ruhlman's Ratio to demystify the custard picture. Yes, Ruhlman avers, custard formulas really are simple. Not easy - simple. You just have to handle those few ingredients with utmost care - and be absolutely certain you hit the ratio right. 
My first quince custard went smoothly and well. Ruhlman says a custard ratio is 1 part eggs to 2 parts liquids, so I made a mix of 1/3 heavy cream, 1/3 whole milk and 1/3 quince syrup, broke enough medium eggs to equal 1/2 the weight of the liquids, stirred everything together, added a teaspoon of cornstarch, poured the mix into pyrex bowls and stuck them in a bain Marie. 40 minutes later they jiggled perfectly. Cooled to room temp, stuck in the 'fridge ... and dessert while we watched back episodes of The Tudors. ("Off with her head!" "Hey, can I get my spoon in there?") Success. Flowery, subtle, a teeny bit astringent - maybe too heavy on the cinnamon (Daley suggests it but I now think not) - creamy and rich, but not too rich. Not quite creme bruleé. Totally unique.
And not yet complete. Just plain Squish is not enough mouth work, in my opinion, for dessert. Treats need a countervailing tendency - crunch, or chew, or icy cold. Make frozen custard, in other words, or creme bruleé, or put it in a tart. Since I have neither an ice cream maker nor a torch, and don't feel inclined to buy either this month, a tart it had to be.
The finished tart. At 4" in diameter, its perfect for two.
Again, Ratio helped. The key this time was 3:2:1 - three parts flour to two parts fat to one part water for pastry dough. Since I wanted small desserts and not a ton of leftover dough, I poured out a solitary cup of Ivory Teff GF pastry blend (see previous posts), added 1/3 cup ground almonds, weighed these, determined the butter and water amounts, stuck it all in the 'fridge to get thoroughly chilled, then made a flaky dough. 
When the amount of flour you're working with is small, flaky pastry dough is not so difficult. Unwrap the butter, toss it into the cold flour, cut with a table knife into random chunks the size of large grapes, toss these through the flour, then reach in and flatten each one between  thumb and forefinger, moving quickly so as not to melt the butter while coating each flat with flour. When you've got all the butter flattened, pour flour+butter out onto a piece of plastic wrap and spread loosely into a layer about 3/4" thick. Pour on the water, pick up the plastic by its ends and "encourage" the water to stay with the flour, and when it's mostly absorbed, slap down another layer of plastic, roll this all up and re-refrigerate. It'll take a bit of folding and pressing when you pull this out a couple of hours later, but with just a bit of work you'll have interestingly layered dough.
I blind-baked my crusts 10 minutes, let them cool, then added a somewhat altered version of my first custard formula. I’d concentrated the flavor by reducing the syrup, and I stuck with straight cream. Two eggs would have been too much weight, so I used one medium egg and one medium yolk. I like the idea of nuts with quince, and sprinkled a teaspoon of finely chopped walnuts on top. Crisp crusts and bain Marie are anathema, so I simply baked at 220 until the custard set, about 50 minutes. 
Alas, all that treatment somehow reduced the quincy-ness of the flavor. The tart was excellent but more generic than I wished. Fortunately I'd reserved a good bit of syrup as well as the sliced fruit itself, so I saved the day by putting slivers atop the tart and dribbling syrup on each serving. Quince, even poached, is a bit gritty, so what I ended up with is not as toothsome as one might hope. Still though it is an excellent indulgence, one that would be even better in the fall, when quinces are fresh. If there's still some available when I next go through Whole Foods, I'll pick out the most fragrant and try again. I'm thinking the tart should have several layers: crust on the bottom, then lemon curd, finally quince done creme brulée, with a caramelized top. Maybe I can borrow my plumber's pipe torch.
If you've never eaten quince, January is probably your last chance until next fall. I say you should try it. Daley's method is to poach the cut-up fruit in a water-sugar syrup that's 2 parts water 1 part sugar. Keep the heat very low and add a dab of spice - she suggests cinnamon and vanilla, and I ad-libbed some star anise - for about 20 minutes. I stored syrup+fruit in the refrigerator. What hasn't gone into the custards is now finding other uses. Tonight, for example, I took thin slices of pickled beets, layered these with thick chunks of poached quince, and added a shaving of good Parmesan. Not much in size but a fine appetizer.
And that's how we eat around here.
(Now I want to dream of white nectarines, my favorite fruit. The only one that should never, ever be cooked. It is just too good the way it is.)

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