In October, I flew to Paris to visit a friend living there. We were there to do research in Normandy for her next book and spent days driving around the French countryside — eating moules frites in Étretat, cobbling together dinner from a French grocery store
while staying in a remote 17th century chateau in La Pommeraye — and, of course, drinking lots and lots of cidre.
On one of our last stops at Michel Huard, a calvados producer in Saint-Germain-des-Grois, we were invited for lunch into the matriarch’s home, where she ended the meal of roast veal and potatoes with the region’s classic, simple tarte au pomme. She explained the tart was simply puff pastry with chopped plain apples tossed on top, baked then sprinkled with a dusting of granulated sugar. As I reached for a fork to eat the tarte, Madame Guillouet-Huard beckoned me to instead pick it up with my hands. “Like pizza!,” she said. It was heavenly, and the crisp pastry held up the apples as rigid as a plank. It tasted more of apples than the other two apple tartes I had that day (a mini one for breakfast and an elegant wedge that night at dinner), and I went back for a second piece.
During a translation error, I thought I heard her say she also makes the tart with quince, and my eyes lit up. I couldn’t speak French, and she couldn’t speak English, so my friend had to translate my excitement. But upon clarification, I was wrong; madame insisted on apples. Still, I couldn’t shake the thought of rosy pink, perfume-like quince sitting on that pastry, warm from the oven. After we left their home, stuffed with apples and veal, we drove for hours through drizzly gray mist and beautifully broken down country estates, and I could think only about making that tarte with quince.
Quince are, I’m confident to state, my favorite fruit. Their aroma is intoxicating in the truest sense of the word, smelling of equal parts Sweeties candy disks crossed with a super lime-tart baked apple. Unfortunately, like their autumn counterparts, they’re not grown on a wide scale, so unless you have access to a good farmers market or have an expensive grocery store carrying a few, you’re not likely to come across them. And unlike almost every other fruit on earth, you can’t eat them raw, but instead must commit to cooking them for hours before you can enjoythem. Most people are automatically turned off by this, but they’re missing out, and well, that leaves more for those of us who know the work is worth it.
Unlike the apples for Madame Guillouet-Huard’s tarte au pomme, which require only a quick chop, you’ll have to poach the quince beforehand but this should be seen as a boon and not a deterrent. Poaching the quince is the best way to cook them, allowing you to steep them in a light broth made of water, wine and sugar suffused with winter spices like vanilla bean, cinnamon, star anise and fresh bay leaves. You’ll cook them for an hour and a half, but don’t worry, once they’re going, they take care of themselves, and you, in turn, are blessed with a house filled with their divine scent and the sight of their blush-pink flesh. Once they’re poached, the spirit of that Normandise tarte au pomme comes back into focus as you toss the wedges on a round of puff pastry and bake it until the bottom is crisp and crunchy.
While the tart bakes, I reduce the poaching liquid to a thick, ruby-red syrup that I then brush over the fruit once it’s done. The glaze keeps the fruit from drying out and intensifies the quince’s heady flavor. It’s not quite Madame Guillouet-Huard’s tarte in flavor, but it’s just like her tarte in spirit: Cook with the best fruit you can get, don’t mess with it too much, and you’ll be rewarded with a dessert too simple to be this damn good.
French-Style Quince Tart
(Tarte au Coing)
3 ½ hours. Serves 8 to 10.
The key to the success of this tart is its simplicity. There are essentially only two ingredients here — quince and pastry — so make them count. Buy the best puff pastry you can find. I like Dufour, a brand commonly available at Whole Foods, but any all-butter pastry works.
4 quince (about 2 pounds), washed and dried
3 cups water
1 cup Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or rosé wine
1 cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved (don’t scrape the seeds)
1 fresh bay leaf
1 thin slice fresh ginger
½ stick cinnamon
1 star anise pod
1 sheet (8 to 10 ounces) puff pastry, preferably Dufour
All-purpose flour, for rolling
Turbinado sugar, such as Sugar in the Raw, for sprinkling
1. At least 2 hours and up to 2 days before you plan to bake the tart, cook the quince: Peel each quince, cut into quarters then slice out and discard the cores. Cut each quarter into four smaller wedges, then transfer all the wedges to a medium saucepan. Pour in the wine, sugar, vanilla bean, bay leaf, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and 3 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2. Cut out a round of parchment paper the same diameter as the inside of the pan and place over the fruit. Once the mixture begins boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a bare simmer and cook, stirring the quince occasionally, until soft and rosy pink, about an hour and a half.
3. Discard the parchment paper, then gently lift the quince wedges out of the syrup with a slotted spoon or spider and transfer to a double-thick layer of paper towels to drain. Reserve the syrup in the pan.
4. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Unfold the sheet of puff pastry and roll it with a rolling pin on a lightly-floured surface until 12 inches square and 3/16-inch thick. Cut a 12-inch-diameter circle from the pastry and transfer it to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Arrange the quince wedges evenly over the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Bake, rotating the pan front to back halfway through, until the pastry is golden brown on the bottom and crisp (it will look pale in and around the fruit wedges), about 1 hour. Remove the tart from the oven and let cool.
5. While the tart cools, bring the saucepan of reserved quince poaching liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until reduced to 1/2 cup. Remove the pan from the heat and, while the syrup is still hot, use a pastry brush to brush it evenly over just the fruit in the tart. Sprinkle the fruit lightly with turbinado sugar, if you like, and let cool to room temperature before serving.