Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sweet Lessons Learned - Candied Citrus Peels

Enveloped by the smell of wafting citrus and sugar, I’m overcome with a vision of plump, bright yellow lemons hanging from a branches and threatening to plunge into the coast of the Mediterranean. Years ago, while studying in Florence, I spent weekends and holidays gallivanting across Italy, and vacationed on the Amalfi coast for a long weekend in the spring. Vast sparkling blue waters stretched beyond the rocky coasts and slender winding streets bustled with merchants and tourists. Sprinkled in between storefronts and around every corner nestled small lemon trees, their branches sagging under the weight of baseball-sized lemons. Each lemon’s rough, bumpy surface yielded easily to thick white pitch surrounding the sweet and tart fruit. The smell of fresh citrus always brings be back to this time.

After my manager sent me home from work on Sunday, I picked up a batch of citrus in a sudden whoosh of motivation to candy the peels according to a recipe in Fine Cooking that I read and discussed for class a few weeks back. The mark of a good food article is one that drives you to immediately get up and try to replicate whatever you’re reading about. A few weeks later (or months) counts as immediate enough for my purposes.

An unfortunate blend of laziness, arrogance, and impatience led me to half-ass one of the essential steps of candying citrus peels: blanch three times or more to extract the bitterness in the pith. I blanched my peels twice only, adding sugar to the next batch of water and figuring it would all turn out just fine. The grapefruit turned translucent first, marking their complete transition into the world of candy. Excited, I fished one out of the pot, let it cool for a few minutes, dipped it in sugar and took a bite.

It was awful. Completely inedible. Within seconds the sweet grapefruit flavor was overwhelmed by a horrible bitterness that lingered well after I swallowed my bite.

Hoping for the best, I diligently removed every peel from the pot as they turned translucent and dipped the lot in sugar. With the exception of the lemon peels (for some reason these didn’t absorb too much of the bitterness from the other citrus), everything was inedible. The oranges, grapefruit, and even the syrup held fast to the piths’ bitterness that I failed to extract.

I left the citrus peels to dry overnight and packed them all into Tupperware containers to buy time as I decided my next steps. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of tossing everything out only to start fresh with a new batch of citrus, because I already needed to figure out what to do with all of the fruits’ pulp – I ended up juicing most of together to make a sort of all-citrus juice. With the rest, I attempted a Joy the Baker recipe for Roasted Citrus, which I ate with Greek yogurt and Chia seeds. While it made for a nice photo opportunity, I wasn't thrilled with the taste. Next time I may add a bit more sugar as I was overwhelmed with the tartness in the lemon.

I decided I wouldn’t make more candied peels until I had a different plan to utilize both the leftover pulp and the candy once it was finished. Still no ideas, I started talking to some of the cooks at work. During a slow hour, I asked the guys at Garde Manger (the cold prep area of the kitchen) what they were planning to do with the peels of the oranges required for a salad. Shrugging, one mumbled “trash,” and the lightbulb over my head went off. A second chance with no extra waste! “Nope, give them to me. I’ll candy them.”

I took home about four oranges worth of peels and today when I woke up to a fantastic blizzard that cancelled both work and class for the day, I got busy in the kitchen determined to redeem myself. I separated the oranges from a grapefruit’s peels that I decided to attempt again and took no short cuts the second time around. I blanched the oranges four times and the grapefruit about seven times, munching on pith after each blanching to assess the bitterness. The results were worth the extra care and time — delicious peels that I can chew and enjoy.

Moral of the story: As much as I like to pretend I know enough kitchen basics to make things up as I go, some steps in the recipe are there for a reason. From here on out I’m quadruple-blanching all citrus for candying.

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