Before I started blogging, before I owned a camera, and before I started seriously baking, I was an English major at The Ohio State University, awkwardly crammed into a desk in Professor Ponce’s Honors Seminar in Literature After 1945. We read a number of great books in that class, including Gayl Jones’ Corregidora, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and, if I am remembering correctly, Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
This class introduced me to one of my favorite novels, The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. I haven’t read it in several years, but it’s basically about a Vietnamese chef named Binh who cooks for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1930s Paris. I am planning to reread it soon, but one thing that has always stuck with me about the book is a passage about quinces.
Gertrude Stein plays a “game” with Binh, where she asks him the French word for something. His French is not very good, so she finds it amusing to hear him struggle. He often defines things in the negative: a pineapple is “a-pear-not-a-pear,” for example. One evening she asks him how he would define love, and he gestures at some quinces sitting in a blue and white china bowl and shakes his head.
After a brief interlude about Binh falling in love with a writer who comes to visit Gertrude Stein’s house, he returns to the quinces, saying:
Quinces are ripe, GertrudeStein, when they are the yellow of canary wings in midflight. They are ripe when their scent teases you with the snap of green apples and the perfumed embrace of coral roses. But even then quinces remain a fruit, hard and obstinate—useless, GertrudeStein, until they are simmered, coddled for hours above a low, steady flame. Add honey and water and watch their dry, bone-colored flesh soak up the heat, coating itself in an opulent orange, not of the sunrises that you never see but of the insides of tree-ripened papayas, a color you can taste. To answer your question, GertrudeStein, love is not a bowl of quinces yellowing in a blue and white china bowl, seen but untouched.
When I read this book, I had no idea what a quince was, so I looked them up. I read that quinces are inedible unless you cook them. Whenever I would pass quinces in the “fancy” grocery store, I would think of this book and wonder about them. Finally, I decided to bake with them, and I returned to the pages to find this passage.
Binh is defining love as “not-quinces,” and I’ve been mulling over exactly what that means for a few weeks now. I think it’s interesting that the color of ripe quinces is described as “the yellow of canary wings in midflight.” Why in midflight? If quinces are the opposite of love, then perhaps this is a commentary that true love is not fleeting, doesn’t “fly away.”
Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about how this is similar to something I often say, which is that love is hard work. It’s cleaning up after dinner when you’re both dead tired. It’s saying thank you for day-to-day things, when it’s a lot easier to take the other person for granted. It’s listening to each other’s feelings and not mocking them, even if you disagree. It’s not walking out the door when you inevitably argue. It’s letting the person you love press their freezing cold toes onto you in the night to warm up.
I have coddled my love for my husband over a low, steady flame for nearly 11 years now, and I feel its opulence almost every day. Other quinces may look nice sitting in their bowls, but I’d rather have a poached quince any day. Especially when it’s hugged by fluffy puff pastry.
- 4 quinces (roughly 2 pounds)
- 4 cups water
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar, plus 2-3 tablespoons for sprinkling
- ¼ cup (85 grams) agave nectar, brown rice syrup, or honey (if not vegan)
- 1 whole star anise
- 1 whole cinnamon stick
- 3-5 whole cloves
- 1-inch slice of fresh ginger
- 1 (490 grams) package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed (vegans, use Pepperidge Farms brand)
- 2 tablespoons non-dairy milk
- ¼ cup (25 grams) almond flour
- ½ cup (40 grams) almond slices
- confectioners' sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
- Peel quinces with a vegetable peeler. Slice the tops and bottoms off of each quince, then cut each quince in half. Use a spoon or melon baller to scoop out the core and seeds. Use a paring knife to cut off any brown spots that look undesirable. Slice quinces into ⅛- to ¼-inch thick crescents.
- Add water, lemon juice, ½ cup (100 grams) sugar, agave, and spices to a large saucepan and stir to combine. Cut a piece of parchment paper into a circle that is roughly the diameter of your saucepan. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring the poaching liquid to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add quince slices to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and press your parchment circle against the top of the quinces and syrup as a kind of "lid."
- Simmer quinces for 45-60 minutes, until slices are fork-tender and pink or orange in color. Transfer quinces and the syrup to a large container and refrigerate until cool, at least 2 hours or up to a week.
- When ready to make tarts, preheat your oven to 375°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- For small tarts: Cut each puff pastry sheet in half lengthwise, then cut each half into thirds. You should get 6 rectangles from each sheet, so one package of puff pastry will yield 12 small pastries.
- For large tarts: Cut each puff pastry sheet into quadrants. Roll each square in one direction a few times so they are more rectangular, but don't roll them too thin. One package of puff pastry will yield 8 large pastries.
- Place puff pastry rectangles on parchment-lined baking sheets. Use a pastry brush to brush a ½- to 1-inch border of non-dairy milk on each puff pastry rectangle. Sprinkle the center of each rectangle with almond flour.
- Use a fork to lift quince slices out of the poaching liquid*, and arrange the quince slices over the almond flour. Sprinkle with almond slices (you can go just around the border, or over the entire tart). Sprinkle each tart with granulated sugar.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes, until edges are golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving, if desired.
- *Once you've used all the quince slices, reserve the poaching liquid. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan to remove the fruit bits and spices. Bring the liquid to a simmer and simmer until reduced and thickened. Cool and store in the refrigerator. Use the syrup for cocktails!