“If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland.” -Dr. Samuel Johnson as quoted in John Thorne’s Mouth Wide Open
In the chapter “Maximum Marmalade” in his book Mouth Wide Open, John Thorne describes marmalade as being the most masculine of breakfast preserves and shares his theory of how it evolved in Scotland to replace the morning snort of whisky. To agree with Thorne’s writing on food is like agreeing with Hemingway on fishing and so I’ll just fall back on quoting his description:
“It is, after all, the only fruit preserve with an attitude problem. Where the others are all lambs, this one is a lion. Ordinarily, sugar works as a calmative, soothing everything into unctuous fruitiness. With marmalade, it plays the lion tamer, which with whip and chair just manages to keep its bitterness at bay.”
If we accept this description–and I do–and extend the analogy further it goes without saying that if it’s suitably masculine to attend this breakfast circus by eating marmalade it has to be even more manly to go behind the scenes as the ringleader and create our own recipe. For both scotch and marmalade we appreciate that the careful craftsmanship involved is integral to their balanced natures. I don’t think I’ll ever make my own fifteen year-old whisky but in today’s post I’ll take another shot at creating a perfect marmalade recipe. I’m after a finished product which assertively presents thick-cut, fragnant, yet bitter Seville orange peel as the main act and not just a bitter garnish suspended in a sweet jelly.
To find a unified theory of marmalade and therefore the best recipe possible we need to be clear about what we want from each ingredient. The beauty of marmalade is partly that the ingredient list is so short: water, sugar, and oranges. In truth it is a bit more complicated because the oranges really are three ingredients: juice, peel, and flesh and because of this some thought should be paid to how the oranges are divided into these parts.
Before moving on to discuss the orange’s parts I’ll pause briefly to discuss it’s type. Bred and grown for their thicker more fragrant peel Seville oranges really are the only orange for the job. John Thorne complains that these are impossible to find where he lives in Massachusetts and I have read of others have trouble finding them in Toronto. Last year I stumbled across some at the tiny Loblaws at Yonge and St. Clair near the end of February and this year found them at the Finch and Dufferin Highland Farms last week. Apparently the season only lasts for a week or two so act quickly if you want to make marmalade this year.
Recipes divide into two schools of thought on how to break the oranges down into their constituent parts. Some, like Alton Brown in a recent episode of Good Eats, direct that the whole orange be sliced and then each slice is cut in quarters. This way each appropriately-sized piece of peel still has some (possibly juicy) flesh attached to it. It looks simple on paper and I tried this method last year but really it makes a huge mess and wastes a lot of juice. Also, it’s more difficult to control the ultimate size of the pieces of peel so therefore more difficult to achieve the desirable thick-cut texture.
The other system, clearly demonstrated in this video, has the marmalade maker cut the peel from the oranges, and then halve and juice the peel-free oranges. The peel is then cut into chunks big enough that they will remain toothsome and provide the welcome bitter flavour contrast to the sweeter jelly. All we want from the flesh and seeds is their valuable pectin and I think this is best released by combining the effects of heat and an overnight soak. So, four cups of water and all the orange pulp and seeds went into a medium pot and over medium-high heat for about twenty minutes. Once softened I poured the pan’s contents through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a large bowl with the orange peel and orange juice. By gathering the cheesecloth into a package tied with string the flesh and seeds could be left to soak overnight (at room temperature in a nonreactive container) so that the pectin seeps into the juice and water.
Why water and not orange juice like some recipes call for? Well, I concede that if one fresh-squeezed a dozen oranges the final marmalade might be slightly more fragrant and “orange-y” but there would be a dozen oranges worth of peel and pulp going to waste. Isn’t this process supposed to be about a thrifty use for winter produce? Preserving marmalde made with Tropicana (or worse frozen concentrate) seems about as counterproductive as freezing slightly rancid bacon fat.
After the overnight soak everything is poured into a large pot–wide is good for evaporation and tall is also good because proto-marmalade is both likely to boil and a bitch to clean if it does–and all of the thick liquid is squeezed from the cheesecloth package that is then discarded. The sugar is then added. Many marmalade recipes, like the one in the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, call for adding the same amount of sugar, by volume, as there is peel, water, and juice. I had five cups of this fruit mixture and that seemed like way too much sugar so I scaled it back to a still significant three-and-a-half cups.
I admit that I don’t know whether this makes the marmalade less sweet or just extends the cooking time until it will set. Marmalade sets to a gel because of the complex interaction between the pectin’s natural setting ability and sugar’s ability to form a jelly at a certain temperature. Less sugar means relatively more water which puts a ceiling on the mixture’s temperature until enough water boils away. I am very much open to input on this point.
The best method for testing when the boiling marmalade-to-be is ready to set is the frozen plate method which John Thorne credits to his wife Matt Lewis Thorne. A half teaspoon of the boiling liquid is dropped onto a thick china plate that has been well-chilled in the freezer. The plate is put back in the freezer for a minute and then the dollop of marmalade is prodded to see if it has set to a semi-firm state. If not, the plate is returned to the freezer and the test is repeated ten minutes later.
Marmalade connoisseurs insist that their chosen preserve is only really good after aging for six months and even better after two or three years. Seems like a long time to wait but it should give me a chance to perfect my soda bread recipe, figure out this whole homemade butter thing, and find the perfect breakfast scotch. For more on marmalade and other citrus preserves head over to tigress in a jam which is hosting the year-long tigress’ can jam which is a sort of compendium of blog-based preserving recipes that includes Cafe Del Manolo’s Buddha’s Hand Marmalade.
Marmalade With Legs
Adapted from several recipes including John Thorne’s Maximum Marmalade, Seville Orange Marmalade from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, and the recipe demonstrated in the videojug link
- 8 medium Seville oranges
- 3 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 cups water
Cut the peel from the oranges in pieces similar to those pictured. Cut the peel into strips–in the direction that gives the shorter length–that are almost a centimetre in width. Reserve.
Juice the peeled oranges. Use a strainer to catch the seeds. Combine the juice and reserved peel in a large nonreactive bowl or pot. Cook the water, flesh, and orange seeds over medium-high heat for twenty minutes being careful to not let the pot bowl over. Pour the liquid in the pot through a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Put the orange flesh and seeds into the cheesecloth, gather into a package and tie the top tightly with string. Submerge the cheesecloth package (as well as possible) in the bowl with the water, juice, and orange peel. Let stand overnight, loosely covered, and at room temperature.
The next day pour the bowl’s contents into a large pot. Squeeze all the liquid you can from the cheesecloth package and discard. Add the sugar to the pot and put the pot over medium-high and bowl vigorously until the marmalade passes the frozen-plate test, described above. Consistent vigilance and frequent stirring is highly recommended as hedges against bowl-overs and burned pots.
Ladle the marmalade into hot jars and use your favourite method to preserve the jars for shelf storage.