Sunday, October 28, 2007
Quince & Pistachio Phyllo Tart - a Recipe
Quinces are drastically underused in this country. Sure we think of them once in a while for preserves, occasionally for membrillo, and even more seldom to enhance the flavors of our apple pies, but it’s very rare indeed that I see a desert featuring them as a main player, or a savory dish that takes advantage of their fragrant twang.
The problem is, I suppose, that quinces grown outside of western Asia and the tropics have to be cooked for long hours before they can be eaten. Only in warmer climes do they ripen to honeyed sweetness that can be enjoyed straight off the tree. But the rewards are too good to be missed.
A fresh quince should be golden in color, and much of its fuzz, slightly thicker than a peach’s, should have fallen away before the fruit is harvested. The scent is heavenly – I think it can be most accurately described as that of a garden after the rain. There’s a decided floral element, yes, but under that there’s the sweetness of wet leaves, and the pungency of bark and soil. Once cooked, the color changes miraculously into a jewel-toned blush, and the fragrance mellows out to a tart-sweet floral twang.
Quinces have long been used to freshen the scent of Mediterranean homes – it’s lovely to keep a bowl of them about this time of year. And they’ve long been considered a powerful fertility symbol in that part of the world. Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, held them sacred, and couples in Ancient Greece shared a quince on their wedding night.
Perhaps my favorite tradition involving quinces is the ancient Athenians' practice of hurling them at the nuptial chariot as the bride and groom made their way to their new home after the wedding. A raw quince is remarkably hard, and I imagine lobbing one at the right person could be immensely satisfying.
Further east, in Turkey for example, quince tarts are often flavored with dried rose petals and coriander. But here I've spiced mine the way I've enjoyed them in Greece - with a faintly sweet mixture of cinnamon and cardamom. Feel free to play around with the flavors and drizzle a little rosewater into the whipped cream if you'd like. This tart is best for the first 3 - 4 hours it's out of the oven. After that it tastes just as heady and fragrant, but the syrupy juice from the quinces soaks into the crisp phyllo and takes away its crunch.
Serves 8 – 10
juice of 2 lemons
½ cup granulated sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp kosher salt
4 sheets phyllo dough, thawed if necessary
5 oz. unsalted butter, melted
3 tbsp fresh pistachio nuts
2 cups heavy cream (optional)
Peel a quince – I find a pairing knife works best here, but you can also use a speed peeler – and cut in half from top to bottom. Using a melon baller, remove the core and seeds. Trim any stem and place the halves in a heavy pot. Pour over the lemon juice, and fill with water until the quince halves are just covered. Repeat with the rest of the quinces, putting them into the acidulated water as quickly as possible to prevent discoloration.
Put the pot over medium heat, add the cinnamon sticks and ½ cup of sugar. Bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring often until the sugar is dissolved, Reduce the heat to very low, cover, and bubble very slowly for 2 – 3 hours just until the quinces turn pink – remember you need these quince halves intact. Gently remove the halves from the liquid and chill (they’re easier to work with once they firm up in the fridge). Reserve the liquid for a delicious tea, or reduce for drizzling into mixed drinks.
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
In a small bowl, mix the remaining 4 tbsp of sugar with the cinnamon, cardamom, and salt. Open the phyllo sheets out on a clean stretch of counter, and cover completely with a damp dishtowel.
Using a pastry brush, coat a flat baking sheet with melted butter. Lay a sheet of phyllo on the sheet and immediately replace the damp dishtowel over the remaining phyllo. Brush the phyllo with melted butter and sprinkle evenly with 1 tsp of the sugar mixture. Repeat with the remaining 3 sheets of phyllo. Using the tip of a very sharp knife to prevent tearing, trim the sugared phyllo stack to a rectangle approximately 11” x 14” and discard the trimmed dough. Bake the phyllo in the center of the oven for 8 – 10 minutes until golden.
Working from top to bottom – rather than across the equator of the fruit - gently slice one of the quince halves into thin half-moons. You need to go quite thin here – shoot for about 12 slices per quince half. Gently arrange the slices, curved side out, along a shorter edge of the phyllo shell. Overlap a second row over the first, trying to stagger the spacing, and use end pieces or half-slices to fill in the edges. Continue until the entire phyllo shell is covered. Sprinkle over another 1 ½ tbsp of the sugar mixture and bake for 15 more minutes. You may discard the extra sugar mixture.
Meanwhile, toast the pistachios in a small, dry saucepan over low heat until fragrant, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Remove to cool and chop coarsely.
Remove the tart from the oven and sprinkle with the toasted pistachios. Cool for 15 – 20 minutes before serving – or you may serve at room temperature. Just before serving, whip the cream (if using) to soft peaks. Cut the tart into rectangular wedges and serve with a dollop of the cream.