You’re probably asking right now, what is a quince? Well, a quince is a type of fruit, similar to an apple or a pear, that traditionally grows in Western Europe and, increasingly, in California. Quinces are very dense and bitter with resilient and fuzzy skins, which eliminates the possibility of eating them raw. They’re most commonly seen in applications such as membrillo, the popular Spanish quince paste that is often served with Manchego cheese.
After doing some research in a few French cookbooks, I discovered that you can serve quinces after they’ve been cooked gently for a few hours. When simmered with sugar and cinnamon, the quinces become rose-colored and fork-tender. Knowing that apples and walnuts work well together—and hoping that the same was true for quinces and walnuts, I decided to caramelize some walnuts in the quince cooking liquid, then use the quinces and walnuts to top a simple buttermilk cake. What came out of the oven was a golden brown, fragrant cake with a subtle taste of cinnamon and deep pockets of tender fruit. It’s perfect for using up those mysterious quinces, and with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream, is a delicious dessert to share with a crowd. If you don’t have access to quinces, don’t worry, I’ve included a variation to make with either apples or pears.
Makes 1 substantial, 10-inch cake, which serves about 12
Quinces and Walnuts
2 quinces, peeled, quartered, cored, then sliced into ½ inch thick wedges
2 cups water
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
¾ cup walnut halves
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon coarse sugar (turbinado or demarra)
- Cook the quinces: In a small saucepan, combine the quinces, water, sugar, and cinnamon stick. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook gently for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until the quinces are tender and rosy colored. Remove the quinces from the syrup and set aside to cool slightly, and place ½ cup of the cooking liquid in a small bowl for use in the recipe.
- Caramelize the walnuts: Pour the reserved cooking liquid into a small skillet and bring to a boil. Boil the syrup for 8-10 minutes, until its volume is reduced by half. Lower the heat to medium and add the walnut halves, stirring them to coat with the syrup. Cook, stirring frequently, until the syrup coats the walnuts and the walnuts are slightly toasted and fragrant, 5-6 minutes. Transfer the walnuts to a plate and set aside.
- To prepare the cake: Grease and flour a 10-inch cast iron skillet, and preheat the oven to 375F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla until well combined. Add the flour mixture and whisk gently until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and evenly distribute with the cooked quince slices. Arrange the walnut halves on the top of the batter in an attractive pattern. Sprinkle the surface of the batter with the coarse sugar, then bake in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out almost clean, with only a few crumbs attached. Let cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing and serving. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream, if desired.
Variations: If you find yourself without quinces, substitute an equal quantity of apples or pears, cooking them only for 20 or so minutes.