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Sunshine in January

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I write this as the crisp glittering frost on our tiny little garden subsides, and the brutal brand of sunshine, that only exists in January, beats it into submission and burns the side of my face.  It is far too cold to open a window, yet I swear the left side of my face is a very special shade of puce; achieved entirely by the blistering rays that drench me and my counter through our glass kitchen doors. I close my eyes and drown in it for a moment or two, allowing the heat to become almost deliciously unbearable, because I know that any moment it will be gone again.

With snow impending in London, and images on tv of a polar vortex attacking the midwest, I feel the need to ensure that warmth pervades every part of my home, one way or another. The fickle sunshine has already dipped beyond the house that shares a rear garden wall with mine (long before lunch time), and I am reminded again to rejoice in the little things, for they are so often short lived. With rare and sporadic rays to wallow in, I try to find other sources of warmth and colour to fill our home with. Sometimes you have to make your own light.

Marmalade is quite possibly the most rewarding dark day task I can think of. It can take the best part of a day, so set one aside. Turn on the radio and lose yourself. Wrap your home in the comforting aromas of bubbling sugar and oranges, and admire the glow of row of jars of golden goodness that is your reward for a day’s work. These days it is easy to buy a jar of lime, lemon, thick cut, golden shredded, dark, tawny or oxford. But nothing comes close to the smug joy of smearing a dollop of homemade marmalade on an unapologetically vertiginous slice of white toast.

Whilst also enjoyable to give it to others, the recipe below is enough for a couple of jars for friends, a few to see you through until next January, and a jar or two for emergency desserts, or use in a cake. Hold onto that last jar, because my next post will be a recipe for spiced orange cake.  In part, this is a selfish way to ensure that heady smells of orange and sugar creep comfortingly back into every corner of my home before the heavenly scent of today is too long forgotten.

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Big Marmalade Recipe

You will need:

1 very large pot or preserving pan

a candy thermometer

glass jars and corresponding lids

muslin and cotton cook’s string

3kg of Seville Oranges

8 litres of water

5.5kg granulated white or preserving sugar (but ideally organic unbleached)

Method

Place your whole oranges in a large pan and cover with water (place a heatproof plate or smaller pan lid on top of them to keep them submerged).  Bring to a boil and then gently simmer for up to two hours, until the orange skin can be pierced with a fork.

Carefully remove the whole oranges from the water (reserving the water) and allow to cool enough to handle. Halve your oranges at the waist and pull out the flesh, pips and membrane with a spoon, set aside for later use in a non reactive (ie plastic or glass) bowl, leaving behind the white pith coated peel.  If your peel has not reached the consistency you want to eat in your marmalade, return the hollow peel ‘cups’ to your cooking liquid and continue to simmer until desired ‘bite’. Once they have reached your required consistency, remove to cool, again leaving the cooking liquid in pot. Make sure that your cooked peel is the consistency you want it be in the finished marmalade.  Darina Allen reminded me that once you add the sugar there is no going back, and no amount of boiling at that stage will soften your peel pieces!

Once all peels have been removed from the liquid, you must now reintroduce your reserved orange “innards”. Place all the orange guts in a large muslin cloth (a cotton tea towel or babies’ muslin will also do, but a double layer of cooks muslin is best).  Gather up the corners and tie them well, making sure there are no gaps for the orange to escape through and place the bag in your cooking liquid.

Return the liquid to the heat, and allow to simmer until the liquid has reduced by about half.  During this time, cut your pith into slices.  Now is your chance to make thick cut, finely shredded or design your own chunk size! Just bear in mind that however you slice it, will be the way it appears on your toast!

Once the liquid has reduced, allow to cool enough to handle the bag, and squeeze the muslin bag to get as much juice and goo from it into the liquid, leaving behind the pips and pithy membrane in the bag. Massage the bag as much as you like, just make sure it doesn’t pop, and discard the muslin and gunk when you have had enough. It is sometimes necessary to strain the whole batch of liquid through clean muslin again at this stage if you feel that you have a liquid that is too gunky and cloudy.

If you are lucky enough to have a preserving pot (I lust after a mauviel copper version personally) then now is the time to dust it off!

Place 4 litres of your liquid and all your cut peel into your preserving pot (for a medium coloured marmalade add 3.5 litres, and for a light marmalade add 3 litres). If you do not have enough liquid for your chosen ratio, simply top it up with a little more water.  If you have a little too much, simply discard it.  If you have a lot too much you may want to continue simmering until it reduces more in a separate pan (without the peel) and then add the correct amount to your peel in order to ensure a good strength of flavour.

Place your sugar on a parchment paper lined tray in the oven to warm and carefully tip the lot into your peel and liquid mixture in one go.

As soon as the sugar is out, and your mixture is set to simmer, it is a good time to put all your jars in the oven.  Place them on a tray and heat them to about 180C to sterilize them.  Boil the lids if necessary. And dry on paper towels.  You will need to have your jars sterilized, hot and ready to receive the marmalade as soon as it reaches the right consistency.

Stir the mixture on a medium heat until the sugar is all melted and then turn up the heat until you get to rolling boil.  Using a candy thermometer and watching closely, stir occasionally to stop it from ‘catching’ on the bottom of the pan.  Your marmalade is ready to jar as soon as it hits 110C or 225F.  You can do it the old fashioned way too – drip a little spoonful onto a cold plate and watch to see if it sets.  Push it with your finger and if it wrinkles when cool, it is ready to put into the jars.

A darker style of marmalade is trickier to achieve than the lighter variety.  It takes much longer to reach gelling point and you must watch it closely as it quickly changes from almost dark and just setting, to caramel … or worse.  The colour is achieved by cooking the sugar for longer and allowing it to take longer to reach setting point.  The dark ratio I have outlined above is very dark, you can lessen the ratio of liquid to your own preference using the above ratios as a guide.

Pour the mixture into the hot jars and screw lids on tight immediately using a good oven glove to grip the jars as you do so.  The hot jar will help to create a good seal as it cools if tightened well.

Whilst a bit of a labour of love, marmalade is well worth the effort, as it’s uses are endless. Label and dish out to friends and neighbours, or hang onto it until Christmas and use in rich fruit cakes.  Drizzle it warm over meringues and greek yoghurt for an impromptu dessert, spoon into a glass of cava for an interesting aperitif or simply spread lashings of the stuff on hot buttered toast.  As you can tell; I could go on …

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