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If you saw these lumpy, fuzzy, brown-splotched things in the bargain bin of your local market for $1.50 a bag, you’d think their next stop was the compost heap and you’d walk right past, wouldn’t you?

Oh, but you’d be wrong.  Sadly, sadly wrong, since these less-than-beauteous things are quinces, and pretty is utterly irrelevant when it comes to quinces.

What you would have walked past, my friend, is the bargain of the year, because fresh quinces are usually upwards of a buck apiece, assuming you can even find them.  When I saw these, I squealed like a schoolgirl presented with a new pony, took advantage of the produce staff’s ignorance, and snapped up five pounds for the laughable total of three dollars.  I haven’t been able to find them this cheap in years, which is why I haven’t, until now, been able to make preserves to ease my often-unrequited longing for this headily-perfumed rosy fruit.

Why would you want to go to the trouble of making preserves in the dead of winter, when you’re all burned out from the holiday baking push?  For one thing, quinces are so high in natural pectin that you can get a wonderfully thick, versatile jam for barely more work than making applesauce.  Besides being a lovely spread redolent of sultry nights at the Alhambra, it can be added by the spoonful to lend its hint of mystery to your apple, pear or berry desserts for the rest of the year.

Even better, turning the jam into the toothsome paste traditionally served with Manchego is simply a matter of letting it dry out in a flat vessel, and it keeps for ages in the fridge. Make your own, and the next time you want to put together a schmancy cheese plate, you can tell Whole Paycheck to shove the insane prices they charge for imported dulce de membrillo.

Let us, then, take a delicious lesson from the humble quince, and remember that is not the surface that matters, but the true beauty that is found within.

Quince Preserves

Makes 4 cups jam and one quarter-sheet pan of dulce de membrillo

10 quinces (around 5 pounds)
4 cups granulated sugar (approximately; see instructions below)
Half of a large vanilla bean, split
1 lemon

Wash, peel and core the quinces, chopping roughly. Remove the zest of the lemon in long strips with a peeler, and place with the quinces and vanilla bean in a large pot. Pour over enough water to just cover the fruit, and bring to a boil.  Cover the pot, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook until the fruit is tender, around 45 minutes.  Remove the vanilla bean, but don’t worry about the lemon strips.

Drain the quinces and puree in a food processor or with an immersion blender until smooth, or run them through a food mill if you have one. Measure into a large pan, adding 1 cup sugar for every 1 1/4 cups puree.

Heat on low, stirring, until sugar dissolves, then add the juice of the lemon.  Increase the heat just enough to barely sustain a simmer (more of a blorp, really) and cook for 60-90 minutes, stirring frequently, until very thick and salmon-colored.  If you find that you’re getting a lot of splatter, you can lay two chopsticks or wooden spoons across the top of the pot and setting a lid loosely over it, which should help minimize the mess while leaving room for evaporation.

Spoon the finished jam into clean, sterilized jars.  At this point, you can heat-seal the jars for shelf stability, or simply refrigerate them.

To set as dulce de membrillo, pour into a small, shallow, parchment-lined pan and leave in an oven at the lowest setting for 1-2 hours, or as long as it takes to solidify all the way through. Cut into squares, dust with granulated sugar and store in an covered container in the refrigerator.

Notes:

Should you not be so fortunate as to find quite this many cheap quinces, the recipe can be scaled according to however many you do have.

If you’re not in a rush and want to cut back on the stirring, you can cook down the puree in your slow cooker over several hours, or even overnight.  If His Lordship hadn’t already been using the slow cooker for a pork roast, I would have done so, in order to free up the big stock pot for dinner prep.

Don’t throw away the vanilla bean after you’ve fished it out; dry it and bury it in a container of sugar to scent the sugar, or if you’re feeling really ambitious, make your own vanilla extract by covering it in vodka — or better yet, bourbon — in a small glass bottle.

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