Fall comes around sneakily here in SF. While the rest of the country is sweltering, our summers tend to be on the cool side, and this summer was no exception. I found myself wearing sweaters during the summer time, throwing on a jaunty scarf or occasionally turning the heat on while trying to warm myself as my fellow Americans were complaining about the stifling heat and horrible humidity. But then September and October comes around and when all the leaves are turning colors in the other parts of the country, we get our heat. Temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s and then, in a blink of an eye, the end of October comes and it plummets down. Fall has arrived (ever so briefly). Pumpkin, apples, maple syrup, and cinnamon come to the forefront in my mind even without down the sidewalk with the crunch of leaves under my feet (San Francisco sadly lacks deciduous trees, one of it few faults and one of the things I truly miss from St. Louis). It’s time for comfort food and for baking something warm rich and heavy that reminds me of grandma. Like a quince, pear and dried wild blueberry pie.
Well, maybe your grandma. My grandma was a chain smoking vegetarian Buddhist that only spoke Taiwanese. I don’t think she ever ate a pumpkin pie or even knew what cinnamon tasted like.
But you know what I mean. The berries and the summer stone fruit of peaches and plums are gone. Apples come in, and then pears and quinces. I love quinces. Their sweet floral scent is utterly reminiscent of the olden times when your great aunt used to put them in her sock drawer, naturally filling her bedroom of a beguiling scent of honey, cloves and something old and beautiful.
What? Your great aunt didn’t do that? You don’t even know what a quince is?
Ha! I didn’t discover quinces until I moved here to SF 12 years ago. I stumbled upon them when my coworker Deb Godwin gave me a book called The Glass Pantry” back in St. Louis but had never even seen them before moving here. The Glass Pantry had an amazing sounding recipe for poached vanilla scented quinces. What the heck was a quince?
It’s a cousin to the apple, and it’s one of those old school fruits that used to be quite popular in Victorian eras. Some historians suggest that it wasn’t the apple that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden but rather the quince. With a pedigree like that, and having read the recipe in The Glass Pantry, I set about making a quince pie for my first initial friends here in SF. I invited my friends Cara, Rita and Damon over to taste my newfound fruit pie, and they were newly impressed with the fact that I had discovered a new fruit – and a delicious one at that (Damon thought it tasted a little like a sweet potato, probably because of the starchiness that it has).
In truth, the quince is actually becoming a little more popular again and I’m finding it more and more in local markets and around the city in restaurants. That said, 12 years later, I only use quinces on rare occasions as they’re a lovely fruit, but they do require a little bit of work. Unlike apples or pears or any of the other fruit, you can’t just eat them raw as they tend to be hard, astrigent and sour unless cooked completely.
Quinces also tend to be one of those fruits that are pretty specific in flavor and texture. As much as I love them, I’ve come to realize that I love them in small doses, and despite the honey like sweetness they create, they sometimes also have a mushy starchiness that isn’t quite the texture that I like in a pie made completely with quinces. They do however turn an amazing rose colored when cooked.
So when 18 Reasons had a DIY Dessert event around Pears, I decided I needed to go, because 1. I love 18 Reasons, 2. I love to bake and 3. Pears. Who doesn’t love pears? But to mix it up a little bit, I decided to bring my pear and quince pie. It’s one of those match made in heaven sort of flavors that you normally wouldn’t think of (well I wouldn’t think of) until I stumbled upon the combination in Bubby’s Homemade Pies cookbook via Chow.com. And then it was the duh moment when I was thought to myself – um yeah, fall fruits go hand in hand together. Why didn’t I think of it?
But even MORE brilliant was that the recipe instructed to sauté the quinces in butter in a skillet, instead of the traditional poaching. How easy is that? Then you mix it with the pears in the pie filling. Love it.
The pear desserts they had there were pretty awesome as well. There was a super moist gingerbread upside down cake there that I made sure I had seconds of (I’m a sucker for gingerbread – such a holiday flavor!). One of my favorites there was forelle pear upside cake that had a wonderful caramelized flavor to it. Caramel and pears just go so well together!
Hands down the most elegant desserts there was a simple concorde pear tart with almond cream. Beautifully done, there was no spices involved, which really just let the pear flavor shine through. The baker said he sampled as many pears as he could until he found these pears that are a cross between a conference and comice pear at a local farmers fruit stand up in wine country. They were perfect for the tart.
What’s great about the 18 Reasons DIY dessert events is that not only do you get to sample other people’s desserts (for free if you bring your own dessert, or for a small $5 donation at the door) but you get to meet the bakers and talk to them about what inspired them about baking this specific dessert. It’s a great casual evening to meet people and grab a glass of wine and eat something sweet.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that I’m one of the judges? Ha! I’m still a little unclear as to what qualifies me to be a judge but I currently practicing my eyebrow arching.
But swing by and check out 18 Reasons on Thursday, November 11 from 7 to 9pm and say hi and drink some wine and eat some dessert!
Adapted from Bubby’s Homemade Pie by Ron Silver and Jen Bervin
Almond scented pie crust
Adapted from More Best Recipes (America’s Test Kitchen) by the editor’s of Cook’s Illustrated
2 1/2 cups of unbleached AP flour
1/2 cup of almond meal or almond flour
1 tsp of kosher or sea salt
2 Tbsp of sugar
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) of cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup of leaf lard (see note) or trans-free shortening
1/3 cup ice cold vodka
1/3 cup ice cold water
1. Put 1 1/2 cups of AP flour and 1/2 cup of the almond meal into a food processor with the salt, sugar. Pulse a couple of times to blend and then add the butter (sliced into 1/4″ pieces) and the lard or shortening cut into 4 pieces. Process the mixture until dough/paste lump starts to form – about 15 seconds or so.
2. Add the rest of the 1 cup of AP flour to the mixture and pulse a few times to break up the dough. If the dough is still clumped up, open up the processor and break it up a little bit with your fingers or a fork and then pulse a few more times. You want the mixture to look sorta like cottage cheese lumps.
3. Pour the mixture into a bowl and sprinkle the vodka and the water over the dough. Using a large spatula fold the liquid into the dough. The dough should be a little sticky, but don’t worry about that. You’ll be adding more flour when you roll it out to compensate.
4. Divide the dough in half and wrap each half with plastic wrap and stick in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Note: Leaf lard is different from the lard you find at the grocery store. It’s refined (but NOT hydrogenated like the grocery store stuff). It’s also a much higher grade way better for you. Don’t use the grocery store stuff. Stick with a trans-free shortening if you can’t find leaf lard, but if you can, it’s worth tracking down. You’ll make amazing flaky crust with it because it melts at a higher temperature (allowing for more air pockets in the dough. Air pockets = flakiness). Check with a local butcher and see if they can order it for you. Or split an order with a fellow baker and mail order a batch.
Pie filling and assembly
Almond Scented Pie Crust (recipe above)
1 lb quinces
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup dried wild blueberries
2 lbs ripe pears (I used Bosc)
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, diced
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup ruby port
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom
pinch of salt
1 egg separated
1. Preheat your oven to 450˚F
2. Peel, quarter and core the quinces. You’ll find the quince to be pretty hard compared to other fruits so be careful. Once you’ve cored them, then sliced the wedges into about ¼ inch thick pieces.
3. Melt the butter in a sauce pan and add the quinces and the dried wild blueberries. Sauté the fruit for about 10 minutes or until the quince slices are tender and have turned an amazing deep rose color.
4. Peel, core and slice the pears into 1/2” slices. Put them in a large bowl and add the quince and wild blueberries (use a spatula to scrape out all the tasty bits from the bottom of the pan), along wit hteh ginger, sugar, port, spices and salt. Tossed them gently together with a large spatula.
5. Roll out the bottom layer of the pie crust and fit it into a 9” deep dish pan. Take the egg white and add a tablespoon of water to it. Beat until it is frothy. Brush the inside of the crust with the egg white wash. Pour the filling into the pie pan.
6. Roll out the top layer of the pie crust and cut it into 1/2” strips. Weave a top crust by placing the longest strip of pie crust over the filling in the center and turn the pie 90˚ and place the second longest strip perpendicular to that in the center of the pie. You should have an “X” on the pie. Turn another 90˚ and place the third and fourth strips of dough on the right and left of the center strip. Now turn another 90˚ and place two more strips of dough, lifting up the strips to “weave” the strips above and below the placed strips. Continue until you have topped the entire pie, saving the short pastry strips for the ends of the pie top.
Conversely you can just skip the weaving and lay the strips on top of each other in a criss cross pattern, mimicking a weave. I used to do that until my sister called me out on it and told me I had to weave. As long as you don’t have a bossy sister, you’re fine. Everyone will be impressed regardless.
7. Crimp the ends of the pie with your fingertips, tucking the ends of the top strip inside the edges of the bottom crust.
8. Take the egg yolk and add a tablespoon of water and beat with a fork until frothy. Brush the top of the pie with the egg yolk wash and then sprinkle some white granulated sugar on top of it to give it a little bit of sparkle and sweet crunch. Place the pie on a large baking sheet to catch any drippings and place it in the preheated oven.
9. Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce the heat of the oven to 350˚F and bake for another 45 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and you see juices bubbling. If the juices aren’t bubbling but the crust is darken too fast, cover it with some aluminum foil.
10. Let the pie cool completely to room temperature before serving.
Note. You’ll note that this pie has no thickener. That’s because quinces are full of pectin. However you need to let the pie cool to room temperature for the pectin to kick in and thicken. If you serve the pie too warm, it’ll be soupy mess. A delicious soupy mess, but still a mess.