Quince Jam (Ma’ajun Sfarjel / Moraba-ye Beh)

About to put a spoonful of quince jam into tea

 

Quince jam in a container
Quince jam, being its sticky delightful self as I set it out for dessert on the table. November 2015, photo mine.

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.

Selfie of me with a quince
Yours truly, contemplating a quince before it meets its fate. (In jam.) November 2015, photo mine.

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.

Quinces on a scale.
Weighing quinces before I chop them to make the jam. You can obviously weigh them at the store or estimate; my sister gave me this tiny kitchen scale for my birthday! The scale was too small for all three quinces, so I ended up weighing them individually. November 2015, photo mine.

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?

Chopping quinces
Chopping quinces and the lemons. The core is very hard! November 2015, photo mine.
Quinces cooking in syrup
Making the jam – the quinces are cooking, and I had just added the cinnamon and sugar. November 2015, photo mine.

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 almost complete in the pot - the jam is a ruby red color, contrasting with the quince's originally off-white flesh
The quince jam is almost done! Notice the ruby red color. November 2015, photo mine.

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.

About to put a spoonful of quince jam into tea
Putting some quince jam into hot tea – the jam dissolves but leaves behind pieces of quince and its fragrant flavor and a delightful sweetness too. November 2015, photo mine.

Quince Jam (Moraba-ye Beh / Ma’ajun Sfarjel)

Based on the recipes by Soly Anidjar (French), Maryam Sabbaghi, Azita Houshiar, and Pascale Perez-Rubin (Hebrew).

Makes 4-6 cups quince jam

 

2 pounds quinces

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon*

1 tbsp vanilla extract*

3 cloves

Juice of two small lemons or one large one

Water

  1. 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.
  1. In a separate bowl blend the sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Set aside.
  1. 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.
  1. Once the quinces are boiling, reduce to a simmer and let simmer for 15 minutes.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

A Fried Hanukkah Miracle: Batter Doughnuts / Hanukkah Beignets

Beignets!
Beignets with some of my favorite toppings: left-to-right, Nutella, chili sugar, and cinnamon sugar – December 2014 (photo mine)

Recipe at the end of this post.

I’m normally not that into Hanukkah. The holiday itself I do not dislike – the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple was pretty awesome, and the general sense of cheer that takes over Jewish communities is welcome as people forget the solemn promise to “be nice” that they made on Yom Kippur. It’s just that compared to the glory of Shavuot with revelation and Ruth and cheesecake, the majesty of the Passover Seder, and the wackiness of having a Tree New Year on Tu BiShvat, Hanukkah is…just not that exciting. I don’t begrudge fellow Jewish-Americans for having made the holiday so materialistic and kitsch-ified to compete with Christmas – honestly, in a Christian country, what else would you expect? If it gets folks into Judaism or to learn about their or others’ Jewish heritage, that makes me pretty happy. Besides, I have neither the energy nor desire to harangue people about “messing up” a holiday that I simply just…am not that into.

There is one thing, however, that I do love about Hanukkah: the fried food, in constant supply. In order to commemorate that a day’s oil lasted eight at the Temple, it is considered traditional in most Jewish communities to eat food cooked in oil. One nearly universal thing about human communities, Jewish cultures included, is that if you tell people to cook food in oil, fried things will result. So Hanukkah is the Jewish fry-fest. You might be familiar with latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish potato pancakes that populate both Hanukkah tables and Jewish plates throughout the winter. But there are also torzelli¸ the fried curly endives that Italian Jews eat, and the Colombian Jewish tradition of fried plantain discs (patacones). As a complete glutton for fried food – my favorite treat in a mostly healthy diet – I enjoy them all…but not as much as one category of food.

Beignets, with chocolate!
Chocolate beignets with powdered sugar – some of the powdered sugar has melted onto the beignets! – May 2014 (photo mine)

Chief among the fried food for me is the doughnut, a treat with a long Jewish history. Fried dough was already common in Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Middle East in the 13th century, when it was mentioned by the Abbasid scholar (and medieval cookbook writer) Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi in a form similar to today’s Turkish lokma. Ashkenazi Jews make pontshkes, impossibly fluffy jelly doughnuts, borrowed from a Polish dessert already popular in medieval times. Moroccan and Tunisian Jews consumed local savory and sweet doughnuts alongside their Muslim neighbors, and many a Dutch Jew has delighted in the puffy oliebol. In Israel, the Ashkenazi pontshke tradition meshed with North African Jewish traditions to produce the sufganiyah – an even fluffier, sweeter jelly doughnut that is the scourge of Israeli dentists and delight of their patients. These are all absolutely, artery-clogging-ly delicious.

Besides the eating, what I like most about the Jewish doughnut is … how it is so very Jewish and un-Jewish. All of these “authentic” Jewish doughnut recipes reflect the myriad cultural influences, the worlds, and the places Jews have and continue to interact with in their cultures. There is the fact that these are all borrowed from, shared with, adjusted after contact with, and in imitation of our non-Jewish neighbors. Our ancestors were not concerned with being “pure” in their Jewish conduct, but rather celebrating the holidays with what they saw and knew throughout their lives. However, in our diasporic mindset, there is something so Jewish about that act: re-owning, retaking, and reworking the traditions of “exile” to make the diaspora “home.”

Mmm, sfenj.
Sfenj, Rabat, March 2015 (photo mine)

Of course this reworking is delicious. Let us take one of my favorite doughnuts as an example – the sfenj, an airy Moroccan doughnut traditionally eaten in the morning, often dipped in honey or sugar. (They are also known in some areas as ftayer.) Moroccan Jews traditionally enjoy a sweet version of these ring-shaped treats on Hanukkah, and some a bit more frequently than that. I was introduced to them first at a Jewish event long ago, and the unapologetic assault of carbohydrate and sugar and oil the sfenj provided had me hooked. I told myself, Hanukkah after Hanukkah, that I needed to recreate that taste. Later, when I visited Morocco myself, and learned more about the history of Moroccan Jewry, I would end up sampling and eating many, many more sfenj. They were all delicious.

I tried to make sfenj once, but got my beignet recipe instead. What happened was that I had invited two friends over, we got distracted, and when it was time to make the batter I realized that I did not have enough flour. Oops. We had a batter instead, but not the dough to shape into the traditional ring shape. The batter was fried anyway – I spooned it in, and out came fluffy, puffy balls that were sweet and chewy. In a few fits of experimentation – and one incident of “boiling Nutella” – I finally managed to get the recipe to the point that I could repeatedly recreate these fried treats. I am not sure if I should call them “doughnuts,” given that they are made with a batter. But they are not made with choux pastry, so are they “beignets”? The names “beignet” and “doughnut” have both stuck – though I lean slightly towards the former.

I’ve been making these beignets since that Hanukkah miracle – though I do intend to tackle sfenj one day. In fact, I taught a few friends how to make these beignet-doughnuts themselves, brought them to parties and potlucks, and may even bring them to work at some point. Of course, this Hanukkah, I intend to make them again as well.

Beignets in progress
Frying vanilla-ginger beignets, April 2015 (photo mine)

This recipe is quite flexible – I’ve made chocolate, vanilla ginger, and cinnamon versions of the beignets so far. They store well for a day or two in a sealed bag. Be sure to fry safely in a very well-ventilated place. I prefer to fry in a deep pan, a wok, or a large saucepan – I don’t have a deep-fryer, and you need to be able to quickly turn or flip the beignets.

Hanukkah Beignets/Batter Doughnuts

3-3.5 cups (400-450g) white or whole wheat flour

1 cup (200g) granulated sugar

1 packet yeast (or 1 tbsp fresh yeast)

~1.5 cups (~350ml) water (approximate measure)

1.5 tsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp honey or agave nectar (you can also make this up with about 2 tbsp extra sugar)

Canola, corn, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower, or vegetable oil

Optional: 1.5 tsp ground ginger (for ginger flavor)

Optional: 1-2 tbsp cocoa powder (for chocolate flavor, reduce the honey)

  1. Mix the flour, sugar, and yeast together until thoroughly combined.
  2. Add the water, vanilla extract, optional ingredients, and honey/agave nectar, and mix together until you have a thick, sticky batter. You might need to add more flour to achieve this.
  3. Cover, leaving some cracks for ventilation, and let “rise” for at least an hour.
  4. Heat oil in a deep pan or wok. (See frying tips at bottom of post.)
  5. Carefully spoon heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan of oil. You will need to scrape the batter off one spoon with the back of another spoon. I recommend not having more than five or six beignets in the pan at one time.
  6. Let cook until brown on one side, then flip (using a slotted spoon) and let cook until brown on the other side. The beignets should puff up.
  7. When golden brown on both sides, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 until you have fried up all the batter. Depending on the size of your beignets this can make anything from 16 to 36 beignets, I usually get about 20-25 off this recipe.
  9. When they have cooled down a bit, you can season them with powdered sugar. For the “normal” ones I occasionally like to dip them in Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or sugar mixed with dried chili pepper flakes.