Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Quinces and peppercorns
Not all creatures find raw quinces unbearably hard and astringent. As I finally cut into the golden fruits that had been filling my kitchen with a delicious floral aroma, I discovered a couple of surprise inhabitants that appeared to be thriving in their inhospitable flesh. Not to be put off, I quickly discarded the damaged portions without examining them too closely - were those really mutant ants? - and continued with my recipe.
I've always liked to poach quinces with spices, but had never thought to add peppercorns before overhearing this recipe at the market in Nice. Enthusiasm counts for a lot in the telling of a recipe and this client of fruit seller Loulou made me want to shut myself in the kitchen despite the fact that it's still sunbathing weather here.
The idea of poaching quince with mixed peppercorns comes from French Elle magazine, but as I prepared this recipe I found myself straying from the instructions I had carefully noted in my head. Instead of cooking the quinces just until tender, I let them simmer in the syrup for a good hour and a half to develop their rosy colour. Perhaps because of this, I found that I didn't need to reduce the syrup much once the fruit was cooked.
I also decided to serve the quinces on French toast, romantically known as pain perdu in French. Here, pain perdu is more often served as a dessert than a breakfast dish, and I liked the idea of matching the citrus-blossom character of quinces with an orange flower water-scented brioche. The brioche from the Moulin du Paiou in Nice was perfect for this: dense and eggy, but not too heavy on the butter.
The syrup is pleasantly peppery without being hot, as my five-peppercorn mix (or, more correctly, mélange de cinq baies) contains three spices that are not part of the pepper family: coriander seeds, pink peppercorns and allspice. Don't be afraid to chew a few of the spices as you eat the poached quince. Many French cooks use this mix instead of black peppercorns in their pepper mills, which adds an interesting dimension to ordinary dishes.
I used a minimum of sugar in this recipe, which along with the spice mix and lemon prevented the quinces from becoming cloying. You might like to top the fruit with a big spoonful of slightly sweetened sheep's milk yogurt or fromage blanc. The classic boule de glace vanille would not go amiss, either.
Poached quince with mixed peppercorns and pain perdu
For the quinces:
3 quinces (about 2 lbs, 1 kg)
2 - 2 1/2 cups water (500 ml)
1 cup white sugar (200 g)
2 tsp mixed peppercorns
Juice of 1 lemon
For the pain perdu:
4 slices brioche, if possible scented with orange flower water and slightly dry
4 tbsp milk
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp orange flower water*, if your brioche does not contain it
Butter and neutral oil
Wash the downy fuzz off the quinces. Peel and core the fruit and cut each half into four wedges. As you prepare the quinces, bring the water, sugar, peppercorns and lemon juice to a simmer. Add the fruit slices to the syrup as you cut them. Add a little more water if necessary just to cover the fruit.
To keep the quinces immersed, place a plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the saucepan over the quinces, and top this with a small bowl to hold it down. You could also use a round of parchment paper (without the bowl!). Let the quinces simmer over very low heat for 1 1/2 hrs or up to 2 hrs, until they are very soft and pink. The longer they cook, the darker their color will be.
If you would like to reduce the juices, remove the quinces with a slotted spoon to a bowl and boil the syrup until it thickens. Pour this syrup over the fruit and set aside in the refrigerator until cold.
For the pain perdu, combine the eggs, milk, sugar and orange flower water, if using, in a shallow baking dish. Soak the brioche on both sides for a few minutes, until almost all the liquid is absorbed.
Heat a mixture of half butter and half oil (perhaps sunflower or grapeseed) in a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Place the bread in the hot butter-oil mixture, lower the heat to medium and cook until browned on both sides.
Serve with the poached quinces and their syrup.
*When buying orange flower water, be sure to check that it is distilled from real flowers. True orange flower water is not much more expensive than the artificial stuff, which tastes truly nasty.