Spice It Up!
I've always been drawn to recipes where you can manipulate an ingredient into an object or shape that more accurately captures its essence. It's why I love retro dishes like fighting lobsters (don't they look like they should be fighting?) or deviled eggs (yolks sent to finishing school). It's what attracted me to these Argentinian pastries filled with membrillo and shaped into flowers. Fresh quinces have always remind me of perfumed apples so it's fitting that boiled down with sugar and tucked into pastry dough, they bloom.
I considered using a store-bought puff pastry. The never-ending heat wave makes baking a challenge and keeping the pastry firm enough to work with impossible, good reasons Iignored to make it from scratch. I also picked up the last of the quinces from Union Market that I'd been eying them for weeks, deciding it was now or never to try Thomas Keller's recipe for dulce de membrillo. Despite the heat that had me rotating pans in and out of the refrigerator, the dough turned out well, flaky and not overly sweet or greasy, so I decided to go ahead and make the vanilla syrup called for in the original recipe. The quince paste, infused with allspice, star anise, cinnamon and cloves, also worked. I'd just miscalculated how long it would take and ended up using what was left of the Mitica membrillo as filling instead.
I didn't realize until I was comparing recipes online that these were as popular in Argentina and Uruguay as our pastelitos de guayaba. I found several references to the pastries made for el 25 de Mayo, the starting point of Argentina's independence movement, observed every year and currently celebrating it's bicentennial. I'm a few months late in making these pastries, but I have all year to perfect them (and a couple of pounds of already-made ad hoc at home membrillo to fill them with), though a little envious of the prettiness that nature accomplishes with so little effort.
Pastelitos de Dulce de Membrillo
Adapted from Time-Life Foods of the World: Latin American Cooking written by Jonathan Norton Leonard. The original recipe referred to them as Pastelitos de Mil Hojas or Thousand-Leaf Pastries though I found more mentions of them as pastelitos de dulce de membrillo (the former name referring to more traditional mille-feuille cakes or traditional tart made with alfajores). Unlike other pastry recipes, this one directed you to mix, roll and cut straight through. My kitchen is a too warm for this right now so I let the dough chill after the initial kneading and in between the rolling and shaping to make it easier to work with.
Traditionally, the pastries are added to oil or melted lard that is only lukewarm (about 175ºF) for a few minutes then added to hot oil (375ºF) for an extra couple of minutes until golden brown. I think this allows the pastry to open up but I couldn't bear to see them in the warm oil soaking up grease and decided to add them directly to the hot oil. Next time around, I'll try the double-frying method to compare the results.
Though they're typically glazed with warm syrup, I sprinkled a few with powdered sugar and cinnamon. I'd made extra to give away and didn't want them weighted down with syrup if they weren't eaten right away.
Makes 18 pastelitos
For the pastry:
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
10 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup ice water
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
4-5 ounces of membrillo/quince paste, homemade or store-bought
For the syrup (optional):
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Optional garnish: powdered or granulated sugar and cinnamon
Below: Fresh quince (membrillo) fruit. They are sold in the fall in the U.S.
A very acidic fruit, it is usually made into preserves.
Sift together all dry ingredients and pulse in the food processor, 1-2 pulses to distribute evenly. Add butter and pulse together until butter flakes into pea-size pieces. Add egg yolk and lemon juice and pulse to blend. Add ice water gradually until just combined.
Turn out dough and knead a few times to form a smooth mass, 3-4 minutes. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a square about 16 x 16 inches. Brush it evenly with melted butter and sprinkly with light dusting of flour. Smooth the flour over the surface of the dough until the flour absorbs the butter. Fold the dough in half to form a rectangle (8 x 16). Butter and flour the dough again and bring the short ends of the dough together to create a square (8 x 8). Repeat two more times to form a final square 4 x 4 inches. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes until ready to use.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board to a 15-inch square, using a small knife or pastry wheel to trim. Measure and cut into 36 squares. Place about 1 teaspoon of membrillo in the center of each of 18 squares. Lightly moisten the dough around the filling with cold water. Pair the filled squares with the remaining squares to form individual 8-point stars, pressing the dough around the filling to secure it. Pinch the stars into the flowerlike shapes. To make the syrup, combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil over high heat. Continue to boil without stirring until the syrup reaches a temperature of 230° on candy thermometer or until a bit dropped into ice water immediately forms a thread. Remove from pan and stir in vanilla. Cover and keep warm until ready to use.
In a deep fryer or heavy pot (3 1/2-4 quarts wide), heat oil to 375 degrees. Carefully add the pastelitos to the oil, 2-3 at a time and fry until golden about 2-3 minutes, turning once. Remove from oil and drain directly on cooling rack or on paper towels. Dip them in the warm syrup or sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.
Ana Sofia Peláez lives in Brooklyn. A contributor to several websites, she writes about Latin food on her blog hungrysofia.com.