Readers who know me know that I’m crazy about lemons, but I’d like to take this opportunity to sing the praises of all kinds of citrus. Oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, limes, lemons, citron, kumquats…..
There’s a dazzling variety of citrus types, mainly because citrus hybridizes so easily. This happens naturally — human attempts to create citrus varieties have been less successful.
Botanists say that only three types of citrus–citron, mandarin and pummelo —are the parents of all citrus trees in the world. So, for example, sweet oranges such as navels or Valencias, are hybrids of mandarin and pummelo. Lemon is an ancient hybrid with much genetic material from citron, Meyer lemon a natural hybrid of lemon and orange. Other citrus varieties are born of spontaneous natural mutations– for example, the Cara Cara Pink Navel, which was discovered on a branch of a tree in Venezuela.
Exotic varieties are exciting, to be sure, but there’s no need to go far afield to enjoy citrus. A common orange, lemon or lime is itself extraordinary and wonderful. It wasn’t so long ago that people were delighted to discover oranges in their Christmas stockings.
Winter is prime citrus season, and how lucky we are to have all that terrific fresh citrus from California, available at reasonable prices in the grocery store.
This December, as I’m heading off for a few days in S. California citrus country, I’ve been reminding myself that a great dessert or snack is simply a peeled orange or mandarin.
But what about that lovely scented peel?
This is also the season to make really special treats, and earlier this week Aviva and I were getting together to make some traditional German lebkuchen — a kind of soft cookie with nuts, spices and candied citrus peel– that our family always had at Chanukah.
But before we could make the lebkuchen, I needed that candied citrus peel– and I knew that none was better than homemade.
Years ago, my friend Cathy and I spent a delightful and memorable day making candied lemon peel. The results still needed some tweaking– and ever since that day, we have been exchanging recipes and samples.
This time, I used the recipe from Russ Parson’s book “How to Pick a Peach,” with about half the amount of fruit he uses (the smaller batch is a little less daunting, though probably also a little less practical). I’m in favor of using organic citrus for the recipe–for even though the peel is blanched and boiled, who wants even traces of fungicide in their candy?
My first experiment included both lemons and oranges, but it was a pain to peel the lemons, and the end product had a tougher texture than I wanted, so for the second batch, I just used oranges. However, later, I made another batch with fresher lemons–both common types and Meyer lemons–and both were not difficult to peel and came out great.
The candied peels were wonderful. For little gifts, I packed some up in parchment paper and foil.
Here’s the variation I used on Russ Parson’s recipe. Warning: this process takes awhile. A couple hours at least, start to finish. But worth it. So worth it.
Candied citrus peel, adapted from Russ Parsons
2 ½ pounds of organic citrus (oranges, grapefruit are best)—about 3 very large oranges
2 ½ cups sugar
2 cups water
In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until you have about two cups of thin syrup. This will take about an hour.
Meanwhile, score the skin of each citrus fruit in sections about two inches wide. Cut through the skin but not into the fruit. Peel the fruit with your fingers. There will still be pith attached to the skin. Use the fruit for another purpose (such as eating while you’re making the candied peel).
Put all the sections of peel into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, drain the peels and rinse briefly under cold water. Then blanch the peels in the same way two more times. After the third blanching, drain and rinse the peels under cold water.
Press excess water from the peels, and using a thin sharp knife, carefully remove as much pith as possible, until you can see the color of the skin.
Cut the peels into shreds, 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch wide.
Cover the shredded citrus peel with cold water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the peel loses its raw look, about 5 to 10 minutes. Drain but do not rinse the peel and transfer immediately to a large bowl. Cover the hot peel with the hot syrup and set aside for 1 hour to candy.
Heat the oven to warm. Place the remaining ½ cup of sugar in the bottom of another large bowl. Drain the candied peel, add it to the sugar and toss to coat well with sugar. Shake the sugar and transfer the peel to a wire cake rack, set over a cookie sheet to catch the sugar. Arrange the peel in a single layer. Place the rack and the pan in a warm oven for 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and let the peel sit at room temperature to finish drying. Candied citrus peel will become firmer and chewier over time, so you can let it sit out overnight or for one, two or three days until it is just the way you like it. Store candied peel in an airtight container, such as a tin, for up to several months – if you can resist eating it for so long.