Blame my friend Maryam. A couple of weeks ago, she made us all – well, all of us who are friends with her on Facebook – very hungry. Very hungry indeed. Why? Well, she had made quince jam! Her preserves – called moraba-ye beh in Persian – were lusciously red, inviting the viewer to indulge in fruity, sticky bliss. On viewing the photo, I was immediately inspired to make my own – and, in addition, reminded of something else. I was reminded of how quinces kept on popping up throughout Jewish spaces I was in: in the quince paste at a Sephardi restaurant in Israel, mentioned in the Talmud, or how quince jam was the traditional gift for departing guests in Jewish Salonica (now Thessaloniki, in Greece.) Looking at Maryam’s creation, I was reminded that, in fact, quince jam is a very Jewish recipe.
By the way, for those of you that have not had them: quinces are a type of fruit related to apples and pears. These oddly-shaped orbs are in season in the autumn and early winter and are famous for their fragrance. Cooked, they taste like wild, gamey apples – but are in the United States more commonly seen in Latin American quince pastes and jellies. The fresh fruit is certainly not nearly as common as its cousin, the apple, in North America. And, like the apple that we eat at Rosh HaShanah, the quince is a very Jewish fruit.
Quinces have a Jewish history stretching back to the Bible. Some scholars believe that the “apple” mentioned in the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) was actually a quince, which was prized across the ancient Mediterranean for its fragrance. So celebrated, in fact, was the quince’s aroma that the Babylonian Talmud prescribed that a blessing be recited upon smelling the fruit (Berachot 43b). The fruit was prized by non-Jews across the Mediterranean and Persian worlds too: Greek and Roman writings both made mention of the fruit.
In the medieval era, quinces remained popular in the Middle East – where Syrian quinces were famed – and in Europe, where the fruit graced Charlemagne’s imperial estates. Jews, too, ate quince for both culinary and medicinal reasons. In the latter case, quince was used against coughs and stomachaches, and Maimonides mentioned that eating quince was a remedy for headaches. Yet it was for cuisine that the quince’s complex and fragrant flavor was most renowned: and quince was widely consumed. It was found in the bembriyo paste that Sephardim brought from Spain (where it is called membrillo) across the Mediterranean after the expulsion of 1492, the quince preserves North African and Italian Jews served at Rosh HaShanah, or in the jam eaten year-round. Though traditionally thought of as a “Sephardi” food, Ashkenazim in the southern parts of the Yiddish world – Hungary and Romania today – were often exposed to the fall fruit as well. By the turn of the twentieth century, quinces were being preserved and cooked across a wide swath of the Jewish world – from tarts in France to tagines in Morocco, from quince cheese in Hungary to the jam here in Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and Iran. One old English Jewish cookbook I found from 1907 had several recipes for quince compotes and jams.
Today, quinces remain popular in some parts of the Jewish world. In Israel – where quinces have grown for thousands of years – preserves and sweets made from the fruit are widely eaten, though perhaps not every day. Quince trees are also found in cooler regions of Israel and Palestine; my mother, who lived for many years in Israel, remembers seeing quince trees at her friends’ houses. Quinces are also common in the Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities of France, another quince-loving country, where treats from the fruit are eaten at Rosh HaShanah and throughout the autumn. In Argentina, quinces have been used as a substitute for apples in traditional Ashkenazi pastries.
Yet in the United States this enigmatic fruit – once common in the Northeast – remains rare and rather unknown. Not to mention that quinces are pricy and hard to get – I made a detour on my commute home to Washington Heights for the sole purpose of buying quinces from Fairway Market on the Upper West Side. In order to save money, I only bought enough for one batch of jam – but that said, you do not need too many to make a large quantity of jam. In fact, if you choose to can the jam – which I am planning to do with a larger batch in the near future – a few quinces can provide you with fragrant flavors throughout the year. Think of it as a substitute for buying jams in the store! (The price differential is pretty close, depending on the jam you buy and the amount you eat. I am a total jam pig.) Besides, food preservation has a long and venerated Jewish history: preserved foods are “essential” to many Sephardi cuisines, while jam-making, pickling, and canning were both autumn customs among Jews in Eastern Europe to prepare for a long, harsh, produce-less winter. Why not, then, celebrate this history by joining in and canning this jam?
Even before canning, though, this jam requires a labor commitment. Firstly, quinces are finicky. They have an unusual skin and shape that make peeling difficult; unlike apples or pears, quinces are not recommended for raw consumption. But like apples and pears, quinces discolor quickly. Cooking, however, reveals the multilayered lace of flavor hidden within the pockets of the quince – and though I definitely don’t recommend doing this as a regular thing, quinces cooked for a long time are worth the wait. Of course, there is also all the usual faff of jam in this: the boiling, the sugar, the time, and for some of you, the canning. But guys, really, it’s worth it.
Quince jam has also provided a window for me to learn about other traditions involving jam as well. If you, like me, have made a lot of jam that you didn’t can, these traditions are really helpful. Maryam (who is not Jewish) likes to eat her moraba-ye beh with soft cheese and nuts on bread – similar to the warm bread the jam is served with in Iran. In Spain and much of Latin America, quince jam is often used with cheese in empanadas (which I didn’t make, link in Spanish), or in almond shortbreads (which I did). In many Mediterranean countries, quince jellies are served with ice cream – which I can testify also work with your typical supermarket vanilla ice cream! And perhaps my new favorite thing, in Azerbaijan it is traditional to stir jam into your tea or sip tea through jam, including quince jam. I went through a lot of jam this way – and truly, it was fantastic.
Quince Jam (Moraba-ye Beh / Ma’ajun Sfarjel)
Makes 4-6 cups quince jam
2 pounds quinces
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon*
1 tbsp vanilla extract*
Juice of two small lemons or one large one
- Peel and core your quinces. I do this with a knife since quinces can have a rather complicated and tough skin. Chop the quince flesh up into small pieces and place into a bowl. While you are chopping, cover the already-chopped pieces of quince flesh with juice from one of the small lemons or half a large lemon. (You will need the other lemon or lemon half later on.) This will prevent discoloration and allow the fabulous tones of the quince flavor to come out more in the jam.
- In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
- Place the quince pieces, covered in lemon juice, at the bottom of a big pot. Add water to cover to 4/5 of an inch (about 2cm). Place on the flame and bring to a boil covered.
- Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes, or when the quinces are just beginning to soften, add the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract. Stir in thoroughly and bring to a boil uncovered.
- Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 1 1/2-2 1/2 hours. Leave the mixture uncovered since you need a lot of the water to cook off. Stir regularly so that the sugar blends in and that the jam does not burn.
- When the syrup is thick and the quinces and syrup have turned a ruby red color, you are close to the end. How do you know that it is thick enough? My friend’s trick to test if the syrup is ready is to dip a cold metal spoon into the mixture, then hold it on its side. If, instead of drops, a “sheet” comes off the spoon, the jam is at your desired thickness. I recommend this method. If the jam is still too liquid, keep on simmering. If the jam is thick enough, turn up the heat, and add the juice from the second lemon or large lemon half, and mix in. Cook for another 3-5 minutes.
- At this point your jam is done. Remove from the heat and ideally from your pot as quickly as possible. If you can, follow your favorite safe canning method. The jam should keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Serve on bread with butter or a soft cheese, bake into cookies, cook with meat, serve with ice cream, or – my new favorite – stir into a cup of hot tea.
*You can also use cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, but I’m too lazy to fish them out of bubbling jam.