I'm starting a petition, effective immediately, to move Thanksgiving to November 23. Permanently. Thursday, Saturday, Tuesday, whatever. I mean, seriously, folks, how awesome was that, to have an entire extra week before December began?
I suppose I could have spent said bonus week contemplating the zen of bare branches, the abstract beauty of their asymmetry, soaking in a bit of still before the hurry.
I took that gift and ran with it. Last week had 'Make!' written all over it, so between the play dates and Perler beads, Spot It! rounds and sleepovers, stories under quilts and science experiments involving sugar mountains, I stole away to the basement to stitch a few seams. Christmas, for me, has always been about butter, which enters on cue as the turkey exits stage left. It felt downright radical to have my hands buried not in sugar and butter but fabric and thread.
Less sticky. More linty. I liked it. Very much.
I finished a few things, began others, and am officially leaving all as is, for now. Works in progress to be picked up on those last evenings, when nights are dark and hands idle and kids and cookies put to bed. I'm not normally a fan of unfinished business, but am looking forward to quiet nights with twinkling lights, needles, thread, buttons, and Mamo (!).
I am also looking forward to not having, ahem, to Google my own blog to track down my own cookie. I mentioned last year I intended a re-org. A recipe index will do, for now. If you, like me, have been groaning over the prospect of tracking down, say, chocolate scones or roast parsnips or pasta with chickpeas and kale, groan no more. Instead, click on that recipe Index, top right, where posts are actually organized by—get this—recipe. Nifty.
I suspect it's a bit glitchy. I've scads of further categories I'd like to populate. (Apples. Zucchini! Chocolate!!) I dream of stand-alone recipes that print. Consider it another WIP. (And please report back any wrinkles. And know that Google Search box, below the Index, is awfully keen.)
The important bit is that we can now find ALL THE COOKIES AT ONE GLANCE, hip hip! Because now, my friends, is no time for digging.
And, lest you think we've neglected the kitchen entirely, double Pffft. What use a bonus week without a head start? We snipped enough apricots to set the Christmas Cakes in motion, tossed with sour cherries, currants, walnuts and a good glug of sherry. We toasted nuts, and turned out our first brittle, and dipped our toes into the sugar jar. Actually, we dipped our orange peels into the sugar jar. Repeatedly. I highly recommend it. It always ends well.
If you can boil water, you can candy orange peel. I love that about this bittersweet treat. Even if it took me until this year to arrive at that conclusion. Last year, my dear friend Dania asked after a recipe for candied orange peel. I think I'd sent some, so had obviously made some, but couldn't translate that to a coherent reply. I can't remember my words exactly, but to paraphrase, my recipe ran something like, "....uhhh.... well.... ohhh... umm... gee...."
Problem was, I grew up thinking candied orange peel as constant at Christmas as suet and marzipan. Are you with me? No?
Let's try again.
While my friends were slice-and-baking Pillsbury dough logs, my mom was stirring vats of proper medieval mincemeat, molding and hand-painting marzipan medallions, and filling the kitchen with the exquisite scent of orange, as peels boiled and bubbled steamily on the stove. Same old, same old. At least in my home.
Mind you, I didn't much like candied orange peel as a kid, preferring the admittedly-nasty cookies down the street. (Brand names! Shiny packages! Commercial jingles! Such a sucker!) But I didn't exactly not like it, either. I'd pluck a morsel, drawn in by its sparkle, adoring the crunch of sugar crystals between my teeth.
Then I'd get down to the peel below and pucker at its bite, edgy, intense, faintly bitter. "It's an acquired taste," my mom would say, every year. She was right. I've acquired it. And her recipe, too.
I've been making some variation on my mom's candied orange peel off and on for a decade, now. It is heady, heady stuff, so easy, so lovely, so entirely different from store-bought. In fact, I can't think of another food-stuff where the homemade so sets itself apart. They hail from separate species, these two. Scratch that. Separate kingdoms. That might still be an understatement. Commercial candied peel, those small cubes in tubs, is sticky and gacky and sweetsweetsweet. Its flavor, if you can detect one, is a faint monotone, a vague pallid orange. The color, not the fruit.
I like the color orange. On doll smocks and Penguin paperbacks.
Homemade orange peel is exponentially Orange, uppercase, vibrant, loud and profound. If a coil, compressed, had a food analog, I think it would be homemade orange peel. It is, after all, the peel of the orange, source of its essential oils, a.k.a. soul. This peel is removed—with a zipper or knife—and then boiled, three times, to remove its bitter. After its final blanching, the peel's boiled a fourth time, but this time in sugar syrup, where its left to languish, long and slow. This is Orange for "spa day". Bitter exits, sweet enters, osmosis doing its thing, entirely in the orange's (and our) favor. It doesn't look like much until the very end, when the peel morphs from opaque to transluscent, the peels going all glow-y, almost illuminated.
Then? Drain. Dry. Dump in sugar. The end. (Details down below, for those so inclined). Seriously, not much harder than noodles.
I know this now. I had to see for myself, again. Last year, in reply to Dania, I could only mumble, because I did what I'd always done, blindly followed Mamo's curlicued script, mind elsewhere, multi-tasking, until, presto! Orange peel!
This year, I paid attention. It really works. It's really that simple. And in the name of double-checking, I made two batches, two ways. It's really, really that tasty.
The outside is all excellent and sugar-gritty, giving way to the toothsome, tender gnaw of peel. It is crunch and chew, sweet and saturated, joyfully bold and just barely bitter. It packs a punch. Like sour belts, for grown-ups. Sour belts you can respectably inhale all day long. (I love sour belts).
I nibble at a peel mid-morning, on the way out the door, during afternoon doldroms. I whip out a jar whenever anyone comes calling, since they keep forever, suit conversations of all stripes, and are far too small to spoil anyone's supper.
And! Candied orange peel is an ace ingredient, in any recipe calling for the stuff. Dip one end in chocolate for orangettes in an almost-instant. Chop and add to any baked goods that call for candied peel; the improvement will be marked, and grand. They lively up pecan bars, and make mendiants sparkle, and take Florentines from good to OMG. And although I've not yet tested it, I've long believed homemade peel would rock an oatmeal cookie, jazzed up on candied ginger and bittersweet chunks. Yes. Later.
Right now, I'd best go stash some peel, so as to still have some while finishing those last WIPS and PIPS. (PIPS, of course, being Pants in Progress, for a—shhhhhh—certain stuffed somebody. On second thought, we'd better make it orange pips, so as not to blow our cover.) Because candied peel is a cup of tea's soul mate. And a cup of tea is sewing's same. And if the forecast is remotely correct, we're in for a baking blizzard, between now and then.
Candied Orange Peel, Thick and Thin
Thin Peel recipe, from Susan Pasco, with great thanks; Thick Peel variation adapted from Alice Medrich, Pure Dessert
This year, I made two versions of candied peel, my mom's thin version, in which the outer layer is peeled away with a zipper, and a thicker sliced version, which includes some of the pith. Both are excellent for eating out of hand. The thicker version is ideal for orangettes and baked goods. Take your pick. The methods are virtually the same for both, with slight differences in peeling and final simmering in the syrup. I've included both variations below.
Use organic oranges, if you can manage. It's the peel we're eating here, which bears the brunt of the pesticides. Organic oranges often look awful. Have no fear. The sugar coats all.
6 oranges, organic, if possible
2 1/4 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups water
Additional granulated sugar for coating
Thin: Using a sharp peeler, remove orange's outer layer, working your way down the sphere in wide strips. When all oranges are peeled, cut spirals horizontally, into rough 1" x 2" rectangles. Think rustic.
Thick: With a sharp paring knife, slice both ends off each orange, then score the peel, top to bottom, four or five times, just down to the fruit. The goal here is to easily remove the peel in diamonds, mostly intact. Remove each quarter/section of peel from the fruit. I candy the tops and bottoms, as well, punching out the stems, and adding the remaining "donuts". They will not be elegant, but they will be delicious, excellent for baking or solo nibbling.
Thin and Thick: Place sliced peels in a medium saucepan, fill with cold water, and set over high heat. Bring just to the boil, then drain. Repeat this twice more, starting with cold water each time. Drain a third time, and set aside.
Thick only: After the final blanching, use a small sharp knife or baby spoon to scrape only the thickest, mushiest bits of pith from the interior. Discard. The firm pith can remain; it will sweeten in the next step. Then, slice each diamond into long, thin strips or triangles, 1/4 - 1/2" across. If you are using the tops and bottoms, roughly chop those, as well.
Combine sugar and water in the same saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Add peel, and simmer uncovered, gently, until syrup thickens, stirring occasionally, 20-40 minutes for Thin, around 60 minutes for Thick. I've always judged doneness by sight: when the peel turns transluscent, it is finished. Medrich notes the sugar syrup will reach between 220° and 222° when the peel is done.
Set a strainer over a small bowl, and drain finished peel, catching syrup below. (The "waste" syrup is intensely orange and aromatic, excellent mixed into sparkling water, smoothies, or likely, a favorite cocktail.) Set a wire cooling rack over a large rimmed baking sheet to catch drips, spread candied peel in a single layer on the rack, and allow to cool and dry for 1 1/2-2 hours. When peel is no longer wet but still tacky, pour a layer of granulated sugar (1-2 cups) onto a tray, and toss peel well in the sugar, until thoroughly coated. Transfer peel to a lidded glass jar, and store in the fridge, where it will keep beautifully for months.