Adventures in Three Citrus Marmalade

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Let’s talk about marmalade.

I became interested in preserving in December 2010, while I was visiting my family in Edmonton over Christmas. I was then a struggling grad student and hadn’t bought Christmas presents for anyone in my family for a few years, which was beginning to wear on me. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I happened to remember the lemon curd my Grandmother used to send my Mom when I was a kid. I remember it being delicious, and I remember my Mom being unwilling to share (I have a vague memory of her offering the excuse that she didn’t think we’d like it and didn’t want to waste it… pfft!). Anyway, this seemed the perfect gift: the ingredients were on hand, I found a clean jar with a lid that fit, and I even had a place to hide it before the day (my Mom’s house has a cold room that the previous owner used for preserves, and that my Mom now uses for storage).

My brother, Clifford, was hanging around at home that day, so I recruited him to help. In hindsight, this was a bit of a mistake. Clifford is autistic and, despite always wanting to be helpful, his intentions and his ability to focus on a task are mismatched. But that day I trusted him, and I decided to have him juice the lemons while I boiled two pots of water, one to sterilize the jar and another for the double boiler I was using to cook the curd. We were having fun and everything was going smoothly until Clifford asked me what he should do with the lemon juice.

“Put it in the pot,” I said.

In hindsight (and, thankfully, at the time), I realize that what happened next was completely my fault. I didn’t specify which pot to dump the juice in, and Clifford is pretty literal. So, when he poured the juice into the pot with my freshly sterilized jar instead of in the double boiler, I had no one to blame but myself. In the end, it was all fine. I juiced a few more lemons and made up the difference with a bottle of juice that was kicking around in the fridge. No harm, no foul, and the curd was perfect and delicious.

Delicious though it was, I couldn’t get anyone excited about what I had done (except for my Mom, that is). My siblings just shrugged when I implored them. Don’t you see, I argued, this is great! It tastes just like the lemon curd Grandma used to send! And, I made this! I could do it again, and I could make it last forever! They didn’t really care or understand what I was so excited about, and eventually, I gave up trying to convince them. Well, okay, they grew annoyed with me first, and then I gave up.

In any case, that was it for me. I decided that, from then on, I was going to preserve every piece of fruit that came into my kitchen (okay, maybe not every piece of fruit), and I couldn’t wait to get started. Winter is probably not the best time to get your feet wet making preserves, though. Except for citrus, there is little else in season. Sure, you can get berries at the grocery store in January, but, as I learned the hard way, what you end up with is a loose mixture that tastes of nothing but sweet, which is disappointing when you’re yearning for the fresh flavours of spring and summer. My early marmalade excusions were also failures, turning out to be much too tough and with an unpleasant bitterness that resonated through your taste buds for several minutes after eating. Even Clifford, who will eat pretty much anything, is said to have pushed my very first marmalade, a grapefruit, away with disgust and a resolute, “I don’t like this.”

Since then, I’ve made 7 successful batches of marmalade, each one better than the last. A big reason for my growing success in this area is Rachel Saunders and her amazingly detailed and inspirational Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. It’s not a perfect book–much is left to interpretation, such as the amount of water needed in order for fruit to “bob freely,” a directive that drives me a bit crazy with its inaccuracy–but my jams and marmalades have improved immensely since I began taking my cues from her. This is not to say that I always follow recipes to the letter, because I don’t. As a guide book, though, the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook is peerless and has turned me into a steadfast marmalade lover.

So, here’s what: today, I’m going to show you how to make a really great marmalade, one that’s neither too sweet nor too bitter. It’ll taste like sunshine in your mouth, with a muted note of bitterness that will have you looking forward to tomorrow morning’s breakfast. Hell, you may even ask yourself if it isn’t too pathetic to eat toast with marmalade for lunch! Be warned, though, that good marmalade is not made in a day. The best marms take two to three days, but most of this time is really hands off and can be spent doing other things. Steel yourselves, folks, cuz here come the instructions!

Three Citrus Marmalade, recipe and method adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook

Let’s start with the fruit.

Gather yourselves 2 lbs of grapefruit (I used 2 large white grapefruits), 1 lb of Seville oranges, 1 honey tangerine (okay, the recipe calls for 1.5 lbs of Seville oranges, but I ran out), and another 1.5 lbs of lemons. Be sure to get two extra lemons, which you’re going to save for juicing on day two.

Start with the grapefruit. Halve the fruit, squeeze the juice and reserve in a medium bowl, or, you know, something that fits in your fridge without taking too much space (I used a 4 cup measure). Keep any seeds and fruit solids that come off the fruit and tie ’em up in a piece of cheese cloth. This will give your mix an extra boost of pectin, which helps the marmalade to set. Put the juiced grapefruit halves in a pot large enough to hold them and cover them with lots of cold water. Bring to a boil and let it go for 5 minutes. Drain the water and do it all over again one more time. This stage is called “blanching,” and it removes the unpleasantly harsh bitterness while leaving just enough behind to make you say to yourself, “hey, maybe I do like marmalade!” Once the blanching is done, cover the grapefruit halves and cheesecloth sack in more cold water, enough so that they are able to move around a bit (sorry I can’t be more exact than this…. this is the annoying “bob freely” bit I was complaining about earlier). I found that switching to a slightly smaller pot, like a medium saucepan, helped me not overdo it with the water. Bring to a simmer and leave it be for anywhere between 1 and 2 hours, until the skins are tender and are easily pierced with a fork. Move the contents of the pot to a heatproof bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave on the counter to rest overnight.

While your grapefruit are blanching, move on to the oranges. Slice those babies in half and juice ’em up, taking care to save the seeds and pulp from your reamer. When you’re done juicing, add the orange juice to the grapefruit juice, cover and refrigerate overnight. Then, take a spoon and scrape out the membrane and remaining pulp until all that’s left is the pith and rind. Slice these up however you want: if you’re new to marmalade and not quite sure how you feel about all this, you might want to make the slices finer. I know how I feel, so I decided to make them chunkier, like the recipe suggests.

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Put your seeds, membranes and pulp into another cheesecloth sack (note: you will end up with a much, much larger sack of seeds) and keep them aside until your orange slices have been twice blanched, then add the bag to your orange slices along with more cold water, which should cover your slices by about an inch, and simmer for at least an hour, or until tender. Make sure there’s enough water to cover the fruit while simmering, and add a bit more water if you notice the levels dropping too far below the top of the slices. Transfer your orange slices and bag of pectin to a heatproof bowl, cover, and leave out next to your grapefruit.

Finally, take care of those lemons. Cut the fruit into quarters from top to tail (but trim those ends first!) and then slice either thickly or thinly.

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Blanch once (yay!), and then simmer for 30 minutes. Cover the pot and set aside with your other fruit, and then relax! The most time consuming step is done, and you’ve earned yourself a beer.

The next day, sterilize a dozen half pint jars and their lids. There are lots of ways to do this, but the least messy/time consuming way is to wash  in hot, soapy water, rinse well, and put them in the oven on a baking tray for at least 20 minutes at 250 ˚ F. For the lids, put them in a bowl and get some boiling water ready. About 5 minutes before you’re ready to fill your jars, pour the boiling water on the lids, which will both sterilize and soften the sealing compound.

Next, slice up your grapefruit halves. First, take a spoon and scrape out all the remaining pulp until all you’re left with are clean skins with a bit of pith.

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(Apologies for the bad photos, by the way. I only have phone and tablet cameras at my disposal, and neither one of them are any good.)

Then, slice however you want. Add to a large, non-reactive (i.e., no aluminum or copper) bowl or pot, along with the water you cooked the grapefruit in. Toss that pectin bag. After this, juice your lemons (remember, I asked you to keep two aside, right?) and strain, along with the grapefruit-orange juice from yesterday, into the big bowl. Add to this your lemons and their water, your oranges and their water (without the pectin bag), and 4.5 lbs of sugar. WHAT!?, you’re thinking now. That’s too much sugar!, you protest. Well, no arguments here, it is a lot of sugar. The thing is, you need this sugar to help the pectin gel and to keep the fruit from going bad. If you’re worried about calories, consider that you’ll only be eating a tablespoon at a time, at best, which will hardly break the bank. Also, most marmalade recipes call for a 2:1 ratio of sugar to fruit, and I just can’t bring myself to go there. A 1:1 ratio of sugar to fruit (well, slightly less) is just fine and dandy for keeping your marm from going mouldy for at least 2 years. And, you’ll taste more fruit than sweet as a result.

And now, the magic happens. Transfer your mix to a very large pot, no fewer than 8 quarts but ideally 11 or 12 quarts. A stock pot would work just fine, but if you happen to have a boyfriend who is awesome at scavenging deals and finds you a french copper perserving pan for the low, low price of $25, fill yer boots. Now, take a deep breath and turn the heat up to max. Leave the temperature at max the whole time! The object now is to cook out the water and concentrate the sugar so that it can gel, and the longer this takes, the more likely you are to overcook your mix and end up with something that resembles one of those rubber bouncy balls. Unless you have some gunk stuck to the bottom of your pan before you start, it’s not going to burn, so keep that heat high.

When the mix starts boiling, don’t stir it at all for anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes. This is going to help you achieve the elusive clear jelly that marmalade makers the world over aspire to. If you stir too soon, during the initial bubbling, you’ll be mixing all the impurities into your jelly and it will look cloudy when you jar it. Cloudy marmalade tastes just fine, but it’s not as pretty as a clear one. Anyway, after 5-10 minutes, and once you start to see foam building up on the sides of the pan, begin stirring every now and then, and more the closer you get to being done.

Boiling mixture at the start of cooking

Boiling mixture at the start of cooking

Your total cooking time will be anywhere between 25 minutes and an hour. This batch took about 45 minutes because my stove is terrible, but, if you have a good oven and a very large pot, you could be done in as little time as 25 minutes. You’ll know you’re close when the level of the liquid has cooked down, the sides of the pan are foamy, the boiling bubbles have gotten smaller, and the mix is somewhat darker and very glossy looking.

Boiling near the end of cooking time

Boiling near the end of cooking time

Off the heat and ready for testing. You can tell how much the liquid has reduced by looking at the foam on the walls of the pan. Yummy.....

Off the heat and ready for testing. You can tell how much the liquid has reduced by looking at the foam on the walls of the pan. Yummy…..

When you think you might be ready, you need to test your marmalade. Skipping this step is not a good idea, folks. To test, take your pan off the heat and then put  a small spoonful of the mix in the freezer on another spoon for 3-4 minutes, until the spoon is room temperature-ish. If the mix runs off the spoon when you tilt it, cook some more. If it stays on the spoon and wrinkles when you nudge it, you’re ready to jar it up!

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Before you jar, though, make sure to skim off the white foam clinging to the sides of the pot. You definitely don’t want that hanging around in your marmalade.

Now that you’ve filled your jars, take care to wipe the rims very, very well before you put the lids on. You may need to scrub to remove any solidifying jelly, but it’s worth the extra effort. Trust me, if you don’t clean those rims well, your jars won’t seal. Rims cleaned, close up your jars and put them back in the oven at 250˚F for another 20 minutes. Then, put the jars somewhere they won’t be disturbed for 12 hrs. The lids should pop, indicating that the seal has taken, within the first hour, but if they don’t, make sure the lids are tight and turn the jars upside down. If they still don’t seal, well, you know which jars to eat first.

And, that’s it. I know this was a loooong read, but I hope that I’ve taken some of the guess work out of marmalade making. Not all marmalade recipes are this complicated (the three different types of fruit are to blame, really), but the results are very much worth it. Try it out on toast with salted butter, and you’ll see what I mean.

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