Monday, December 21, 2009

Quince caramels: a lesson in adjusting one's expectations

I've had the quince caramels recipe from Chez Pim bookmarked for ages and since quinces are in season in the northeast, I figured it was time to give it a shot. Before you read any further, you really should follow the link so you have a clear visual on what the caramels are supposed to look like.

I had to go to five different places before I found them, but I was determined that this was going to be my fun weekend kitchen project and my enthusiasm would not be quashed. It's actually a pretty straightforward process: peel and chop up several quinces, poach them in simple syrup and then use the infused syrup to make lovely, squashy caramels that you wrap up in waxed paper and give away to people you want to love you. Unless you're me, but we'll get to that.

The ingredients, quinces and sugar:
Yes, the cord for our refrigerator runs along the counter. I don't know why.

Quinces are difficult to peel and chop, being just about as hard as rocks, so I had plenty of time to let my mind wander during that stage of things and my mind wandered toward cardamom. I've been thinking a lot about cardamom lately, mainly just how awesome it is and how it makes already awesome things even awesomer, and I figured that a couple of cardamom pods in with the poaching liquid would only be for the good.
I made the simple syrup (two parts sugar to one part water plus six cardamom pods) and dropped the quince slices in as I cut them.
I cut the slices a lot thinner than most of the ones I've seen around the internet. Because I'm a rebel, that's why. Then I cooked them for a very long time.

When I decided they were done, they looked like this:
I kept peeking in at them as they cooked, waiting for them to turn pink and getting kind of antsy about it. "But they're just a darker yellow!" I cried petulantly. Then with a slightly more hopeful tone, "Though maybe with a slight pinkish cast!"

I let the whole pot cool down on the stove for a few hours then refrigerated it all overnight. This afternoon when I got around the dealing with them, they had turned decidedly pink.
I took the fruit out of the syrup and set it aside.
I'm not sure what I'm going to do with them. The quince slices doesn't seem so much poached to me as glaceed. They are no longer fruit, but have become candy. They'd be delicious half dipped in very dark chocolate and added to a cookie plate, but I suspect I'm actually just going to eat a piece or two every time I get something out of the fridge for a few days and polish them off that way.

I hit a snag when I got my thermometer out and realized that it didn't go high enough. It only went to 220, but I needed to be able to gauge up to 260. I didn't think this would be an insurmountable problem though. I've made plenty of caramel-y things in my day without worrying about the precise temperature, but I was concerned about her directive to avoid undercooking so I didn't end up with caramel sauce. So I figured I would err on the side of longer cooking times (= foreshadowing).
For the first step, in which I was supposed to bring the infused syrup up to 240, I put the thermometer in, waited until it reached 220, then let it go for another few minutes until it was a nice medium brown. I took it off the heat and added the butter. She calls for salted butter, but I used unsalted, plus a couple pinches of nice sea salt (see: rebel!). Then I put it back on the flame, this time supposedly to 260.

I waited for it to reach 220, then, for no discernible reason whatsoever, decided that it should cook for another seven minutes. Sometimes I maintain a strict adherence to arbitrary, meaningless rules that I invent. The more arbitrary the rule, the more strictly I will adhere to it. This was one of those cases. I did an ice-water test after those seven minutes and the caramel hardened immediately, so I figured it was done and poured it out onto parchment.
Yes, it was dark, but it smelled good, so I felt good about it.

An hour or so later, I went back to cut it into pieces and discovered that I had created a pan full of shiny, delicious volcanic glass.
I am here to tell you that it is incredibly satisfying to smash a big piece of glass-like burned sugar. Try it sometime!

So, after all that, it tastes nothing like quinces. Nor cardamom. BUT. It's pretty delicious as is, with that great caramelized flavor that tiptoes right up to the edge of bitterness but just shies away at the last minute. Right now, I have a ziploc bag full of shards in the fridge — I figure if they're cold, they're less likely to stick together, though my logic has been a smidge on the faulty side today, so who knows — and might just eat it like hard candy for as long as it lasts. If I get ambitious though, it would be really awesome pulverized further and mixed into coffee ice cream.

[originally posted on my old food blog 11.22.2008]

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