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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lord Marmelade

[What follows is a post originally from Mojourner Truth, but it's about marmelade time again in the Mocavore kitchen, so I am in a recycling mood.]

The title here is a twisting of Lady Marmalade, whose gichy gichy yaya is one of the few riffs guaranteed to get me dancing, but which has nothing to do with this entry. That weren't no lady, and marmalade seems so un-funky, more old-fashioned and British. Ergo the "Lord." 

Paddington Bear and old women take their tea with marmalade at the ready, it's medicinal power soothing the harm done to one's palate by the clinkery toast favoured on that side of the pond. My grandparents liked it, and I do too, but few devotees are young. Not sweet enough, too full of the peel that Americans have cast off for generations.

This concoction's etymology trails back to classical times, alluding to the Greek "honey apple," an apple grafted to the quince. For a long time, it has meant a jam or preserve including citrus, the acidity probably important before sanitary canning, preservatives, and pasteurization. 

Now it's a nostalgic taste to some, to me. I made some batches this year, both to practice the science of canning which was nearly lost by my generation, as well as to savor something grandma made. The first time I used blood oranges, which I'm guessing would have been unimaginably exotic in central Ohio during the Depression, when as a young mother she began canning in earnest. I followed her lead, and made a portion into "hot jam" by inserting a cinnamon stick into each jar as it was filled. I also experimented with some, adding some local cranberries to the mix to redden it further and add a bit of bite.

Equally exotic may have been the preternaturally orange navels of the modern supermarket, bred for looks, tasting like water. The blood oranges had the allure of aroma, more flavor packed into a tennis ball sized fruit than in the softballs lobbed out of Florida by the trainload. Even better, they were on sale.

Same goes for the variety in the next batch. The local grocery had a sale on "Cara Cara" oranges, which were dead ripe and redolent of heaven as I walked in. I immediately filled a couple of bags with the fruit, same size as the bloods, similarly ugly on the outside with patches of green, some blemishes, and even a soft spot or two (all of which told me the "organic" label was not fake, and that they'd been picked ripe). This time, I went for straight marmalade, no experimental or family-inspired additives.

I don't have grandma's recipe, and had to go looking on the internet, my approach to which is to triangulate, to look at plenty and attempt to discern a logic. The first task is always to weed out the bullshit: the people repeating some untested recipe because they like to post stuff, the "easy" versions maximizing prepared stuffs and minimizing cooking, and the just plain mistaken. Eventually, I zero in on the essentials, and get an idea of the leeway in ingredients and proportions that won't result in failure. The rest is reconciling units (cups versus pounds of sugar, pounds versus numbers of oranges), and trying to figure out what my palate wants compared to typicality, which in this case was less sugar.

In the end, it was this:
  • 10 pounds of oranges (32 or so of the size  favor) - Peel the zest off of about 1/4 of them, quarter and thinly slice everything else.
  • 6 cups of water - Add this and the oranges to a large steel or enamel pot, and gradually bring to a boil. Keep cooking til the only identifiable pieces are the rinds, which should be quite soft.
  • Now, turn it off and do something else til tomorrow. You may want to cover it to keep the varmints out
  • Start again by gradually returning your orange slurry to a boil. 
  • 10 cups of sugar (You have pretty wide latitude here, I think. Add less to begin, and keep adding til it seems right to you.) - Add the zest and stir. And stir! If you don't it'll start to stick and burn on the bottom of the pot. 
  • The mixture is sneaky and vindictive at this point--it will look calm, lulling you into not stirring. Then when you start again you release a sudden violent boiling, a volcanic eruption of orange lava hotter than boiling that will stick to your skin and burn like hell. Sweet hell, but painful nonetheless.
  • A lot of recipes carry on about how you need to bring the stuff to 220 or 222 degrees, or the jam won't set. I've never managed to get it past about 215, and it has set fine. The key things seem to be: it gets darker, you begin to have trouble keeping it from sticking and burning, and it gets thick enough that after a while you cannot stand to stir any more. It's done, so you can it.

This last batch went into some old squat jars I got at a yard sale. Some proudly proclaimed their modernity with embossed patent dates from over a century ago (the same wide-mouth lids of today work just fine, and it's good to know that some things don't change). 

I dipped into one of these pots of marmalade--talking in a Paddington accent of course--and was rewarded with the colour and flavour of liquid sunshine. Nostalgic in name and appearance, perhaps, but as bright and fresh a taste as I could imagine.