Quince cheese or cotognata – a sweet of Turkish Delight-ish consistency – was once a fixture on Italian Christmas-tide tables but has rather fallen out of fashion… perhaps – and this is a warning – because the effort involved is about the same as a tough hour lifting weights in the gym. Before you begin, fetch a stool or step ladder high enough to sit on and stir the pot comfortably, and a very good novel.
Quince – 2.5 kg
Lemon – 1
Sugar – 1 kg
Sugar – for coating
Squeeze the juice of one lemon into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and throw the lemon skins in as well. Now cover the bottom of the saucepan to a depth of about 1.5-2cm with water. This will keep the quince from oxydising and going brown as you complete your preparations.
Peel (not strictly necessary, so you can skip this if you like), core and remove any major blemishes from the quinces, then chop them roughly into the saucepan. Stir the pieces in the lemony water from time to time to acid-coat them.
When the fruit is ready put the saucepan on the stove and stew the fruit until it’s soft. You can remove the lemon peels before or after cooking – it’s fairly immaterial though obviously the lemon taste will be stronger if you leave them. When the fruit is nice and soft, remove it from the heat and plunge a stick blender into the mush to remove any remaining lumps. You may need to add half a cup or so of water at this point simply to make it workable.
Return the fruit (there should at this point be about 1.5kg of pulp: if it has produced much more than this, increase the amount of sugar used) to the stove and gently heat it. When it’s hot, pour in the sugar, stirring the whole time until it dissolves.
Now turn up the heat as far as you dare – medium-hot is probably safer than hot-hot – and don’t stop stirring. If you do, you’ll find yourself with a toffee-lined saucepan which you will never scrape clean again. Protect your stirring hand with a thick oven glove, because this molten glug will gurgle and spit. You want to reduce the mixture, turning it into a blob so thick that you’ll need all your strength to get the wooden spoon through it. This should take about 30-40 minutes during which time that stool and novel will come in very handy.
You’ll know the mixture has reduced enough when it starts to behave differently: each spoon stroke will lift the blobby mass cleanly off the bottom of the pot, like a thick roux when you’re making bechamel. Continue cooking for a few minutes more, then you’re ready.
Line one large or sufficient small low-sided baking trays with greaseproof paper, and tip the mixture on to the paper. Spread it so that it’s a generous 1cm thick all over. As soon as you can, smooth the top neatly, either with wet hands or a wet plastic spatula or knife: if you try to do it with anything dry, the mixture will stick.
Now you need to leave it to dry somewhere warm, for about 12 hours. The place doesn’t need to be very warm: keeping an oven on low for 12 hours, for example, isn’t strictly necessary. I place mine overnight on a trivet on top of my wood-burning stove. A warm airing cupboard will do fine, or some kind of shelf rigged up above a warm radiator. After this long drying period, the cotognata should be rubbery and not at all sticky to the touch.
Fill a mug with boiling water, leave a sharp knife to heat up in it, then cut your cotognata into 2cm squares, keeping the knife hot and damp all the time to stop the slab wrinkling and tearing as you cut it.
Put some sugar in a small bowl and toss each of the pieces in it, shaking off any excess. Lay the pieces neatly in an air-tight container, placing greaseproof or rice paper between the layers. It should keep for weeks, if not months… though it probably won’t because it tends to disappear very quickly over the Christmas period.
This recipe can also be made using the fragrant pulp left in the jelly bag after making quince jelly. Unless you’ve prepared the fruit with unusual care, you’ll have to summon the strength to push the mess through a sieve to get rid of core, seeds etc.
© Anne Hanley, 2011, 2019