The knobby quince (birsalma or birskorte) has never been one of the most popular fruits. But come autumn, this humble fruit (and rather unattractive fruit) is stewed in sugar and water, and cooked into a firm jelly. This turns this difficult to appreciate fruit (due to its bracingly bitter flavor and need to cook it before eating) into quince “cheese” (birsalma sajt), an anticipated seasonal delicacy.
With a consistent bumper harvest of fruit throughout the autumn, Hungarians have grown used to utilizing the season’s bounty in a myriad of ways—fresh, fermented, dried, cooked, and preserved. Quince is often made into jam or pálinka, but birsalma sajt is one of the most popular ways to prepare it.
It’s a close relative of jam and jelly, but with a firmer texture that is served moulded, and then cut into thin slices to accompany cold meats and cheese plates. Traditionally, families in rural Hungary would gather fallen quince in early autumn and slowly cook it, so that all the natural sugars and pectin would solidify the fruit in the pan. It’s a common confection in many European cultures, from Spain (known as membrillo) to Italy (known as cotognata), but the local version is prepared with small amounts of cinnamon, cloves and lemon zest making it tangier and more granular. You’ll find it sold in markets throughout Budapest, with vendors stocking a small amount of this firm fruity cheese throughout the cold-weather season.
While it might be easier to buy birsalma sajt pre-made, making it from scratch at home is quite simple. At the market be sure to select fruit that is fragrant, yellow-green in color and as free of blemishes as possible.
BIRSALMA SAJT (QUINCE JELLY)
- 2 kilograms quince
- 1 kilogram sugar (approximate)
- 1 lemon, halved
- Toasted walnuts or almonds
- Wash the quinces well and cut into four wedges. Remove the seeds, the core, and impurities. Don’t worry about peeling it since the peel will be easier to remove after boiling.
- In a large pan add just enough water to cover the quince wedges, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, and cook for 60-90 minutes, until the fruit is very tender.
- Drain the fruit, remove the peel, and purée it in a large bowl.
- Weigh the fruit paste and transfer it to a heavy pot. Add an equal weight of sugar to the mixture and squeeze in the rest of the lemon juice.
- Heat the mixture on medium heat, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking. Cook until it is thick enough to hold its shape.
- Turn it out onto a greaseproof paper lined baking form or tray. Depending on your preference, stir in a few toasted walnuts, almonds, or other nuts.
- Let it cool in the pantry or fridge overnight.