A most triumphant of tarts. Photo: Stephanie Wood
It is, I think, the Ebenezer Scrooge of fruits. The most miserly, intractable and inhospitable of fruits. About once a year, as I curse and bah-humbug my way through peeling, quartering and coring a pile of rock-hard quinces, I wonder why I bother. When finally the pale, gritty results of my work are simmering in sugar syrup, with vanilla bean and lemon juice, maybe cloves, a cinnamon stick and allspice, I’m inevitably left to consider my wounds. Raw hands, a cut or three.
And the transformation from miser to munificence is a slow one — two, three, four hours of low oven heat, before the quince shows its worth and generosity. But such generosity — it’s why I persist. That jewelled colour, that sheen, that voluptuousness, that scent, that textural eccentricity … yes, clearly I’m getting carried away.
I should really reserve my adjectives and enthusiasm for the next step in this process. I make a quince tart. In The Cook’s Companion, Stephanie Alexander devotes a chapter to quinces, with recipes for quince paste, orange and quince jelly, poached quince, quince custard, Maggie’s pot-roasted quinces, Maggie’s pickled quinces, Stephanie’s Quince Tart ... Stop right there. Stephanie’s Quince Tart is the thing.
I’ve been making Stephanie’s Quince Tart — how convenient that I can claim it as my own! — every autumn/early winter for a few years now. It’s quite a commitment: First, you must poach your quinces (which requires the making of a light sugar syrup, that dreadful process of breaching the quince’s defences, the tying in muslin of the quince core to cook with the quinces). Then, you must prepare your shortcrust pastry. Pastry! I’ve always been terrified of it — my hands are too warm, my technique too slow, too clumsy, too incompetent. Yet when I follow Stephanie Alexander’s shortcrust recipe (in the book’s “basics section”) my true nature emerges: I’m a pâtisserie genius, I’m Marie-Antoine Carême, I’m walking on cloud nine.
So you have poached your quinces, you have blind-baked your pastry case. It is time to beat your eggs and sugar (possibly, as I do, in an ancient Sunbeam Mixmaster) until light and frothy, add a spoon of flour and then finally more melted butter than is decent. Arrange quinces in tart shell. Gently spoon over the egg-sugar mix (chefs, does that particular concoction have a name?). Bake. (Drink leftover egg-sugar mix.) Watch quince tart cook. Celebrate.
Stephanie’s Quince Tart is always a triumph for me. But last week as I made it (am I allowed to boast about my miraculous short crust pastry?) I started to wonder whether my motivations for cooking for others are always pure. I have written about the times I have cooked with love, but could it be true that on many more occasions I cook for adulation, for ego? How hungrily I watch the faces of my guests as they taste my food, how greedily I soak up their praise.
It’s that word “triumph”. It’s a word laced with a degree of self-satisfaction and smugness. Just look at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character of Aunt Chloe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a cook of corn cakes and chicken pie:
“The arrival of company at the house, the arrangement of dinners and suppers in ‘style’, awoke all the energies of her soul; and no sight was more welcome to her than a pile of travelling trunks launch on the verandah, for then she foresaw fresh efforts and fresh triumphs …”
As I worried over my impure motives for cooking quince tart, I spotted a long-forgotten book on my shelves, an undistinguished title from the 1950s called Cooking for Compliments. The cover photograph — a retro roast duckling with orange sauce — was stylistically alarming but still, as did Aunt Chloe, the book gave me some reassurance. I’m not the only woman in history to have cooked, well, needily.
Those generations of women before me whose achievements were so miserably restricted to the domestic realm might well have had few other sources of pride and affirmation and so a right to take all the credit they could get for their cooking. But even in the 21st century, the act of cooking for others is not a pure and simple thing: it's a tangle of selflessness, love, pride, ego, validation, neediness, selfishness. Is that such a bad thing? Besides, what else could explain my annual battle with a pile of inhospitable quinces?