I have made many a jar of jam in my life - I really like making jam, you guys - but nothing, not strawberries almost candied with lemon grass, not rhubarb and grapefruit preserves, not even the oven-baked, spiced plum butter from my book has ever come close to the experience that making that little cluster of Seville orange marmalade jars up there was. It was transcendental and I know that that might sound like it's bordering on the absurd, but what can I say? Perhaps it takes very little to transport me these days.
Or perhaps, Seville orange marmalade is like the Mount Everest of marmalades - the zenith of jam-making, if you will. And I climbed it at a point in my life when I sort of assumed that nothing of the sort was going to happen any time soon. I mean, you have a baby and then your kitchen priorities shift. You know? I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I just figured that if I could barely make myself a hot dinner the other day, then jam-making, multi-day jam-making, was a far-off glimmer in the future.
But the other day, on one of my market walks, I came across a stand selling Seville oranges (also known as sour or bitter oranges, depending on where you live). This is not a common occurence. In fact, I don't think I'd ever seen them in the flesh before. Over the years, I'd hear now and again in February of someone finding a few knocking about in a bin at some market. But I personally had never had the privilege. In fact, I'd long ago resigned myself to buying orange marmalade, having it be the only store-bought jam in my pantry. Once, on a trip to London a few years ago, I bought a big can of Mamade thin-cut Seville oranges and I made marmalade that I liked very much, but I couldn't help but think, each time I opened a fresh jar, that it was a little pathetic to be eating jam made from canned fruit. There was something so Soviet about it or something.
So there I was, standing in front of this bin of Seville oranges in the biting cold, with my mouth agape and the baby in the stroller next to me. You can imagine that it took me about three seconds flat to buy two kilos.
But then, after I got home with my haul, I got scared. I let the oranges sit on the kitchen table for three whole days while I worked up my courage to deal with them. I knew it was going to take a lot of elbow grease and time - two things I'm really short on these days. When, on the fourth day, I saw a telltale spot of white mold blooming on the peel of one of the oranges, I shook myself out of my stupor. It was time to make orange marmalade, come hell, high water OR a screaming baby. There was no time like the present.
I consulted The Kitchen Diaries II and a bunch of recipes online (like this one and this one) to figure out just how get started. I liked that Nigel Slater has you score the peel off the fruit without puncturing the orange flesh, so that you start by slicing up the peel before doing anything else, rather than slicing the oranges whole. I put the baby to bed, turned on the radio and got to work.
Once all the peel was thinly sliced (you can cut it thicker, if that's what you prefer) and resting in my big cast-iron pot, I juiced the oranges into the pot and then extracted every single last sticky seed from the flesh. Seville oranges aren't like regular oranges - they're drier and have more nooks and crannies for the seeds to hide out in. The best way to ferret out those seeds is to push the squeezed orange flesh around on the cutting board - eventually the remaining seeds will squirt out the sides. The de-seeded flesh got chopped up and added to the peel and the seeds went into a mesh metal spice ball that my mother-in-law gave me a few Christmases ago. (I could never really figure out what to use it for, but now that it has redeemed itself as a VIKU, a Very Important Kitchen Utensil, I am considering having it gilded.) I put the mesh seed ball into the pot with the peel and the juice and flesh, filled it up with water and then went straight to bed, my fingers all pruney from having been sunk into sour oranges for two hours.
The next night I brought the pot to a boil and let it cook for a good long while until the peel was translucent and the liquid level in the pot was much reduced. (All of this, the overnight soaking and the long boil, helps get the harsh bitter edge off the oranges, leaving behind a rounded, more agreeable bitterness, if that makes any sense.) Only then did I add the sugar.
Now. Every recipe I consulted has you add twice as much sugar - in weight - as there is fruit. This seems to be somewhat of a rule in orange-marmalade-making. But I could not put that much sugar into the pot. I couldn't! I wanted to, I really did! I like following the rules! But in this case, it hurt my teeth just to look at it (I usually do a ratio of 50%-50% fruit to sugar with regular jams). Since Nigel's original numbers were the following: 1.3 kilos of fruit (he uses Seville oranges and some lemons) and 2.6 kilos of sugar, I decided to do 1.3 kilos of fruit (only oranges) and 2 kilos of sugar. And you know what? My marmalade turned out plenty sweet. In fact, I think I could probably have pushed it even a little lower. Not much, but a little.
You let the sugar dissolve in the hot liquid and then you bring the whole thing to the boil again and let it cook until a little dish of jam stuck in the freezer for a few minutes develops a skin. It took my jam an hour to get to that point. One long, glorious, orange-scented hour. Incidentally, I'm pretty sure I've found my new favorite cooking smell. Bread? Brownies? Roast chicken? Scram, pals.
While the marmalade cooks, you have to skim it a bit, so that your marmalade is sure to be translucent and beautiful when it's done, but I spent most of that hour on the couch watching this, thinking deep thoughts about what Berlin could have been, what Germany could have become, what it squandered and destroyed instead. So the marmalade doesn't really require too much of you.
When it's done, you need your clean jars and lids at the ready, and then you just have to be quick, filling the jars to the brim, wiping off the rims, closing the lids tightly and turning them upside-down. (Letting them cool upside-down overnight gives you a vacuum seal on the jar. And readers: there is absolutely, positively no danger of this jam going bad - the amount of sugar, even the reduced amount that I used, will keep the marmalade safe and delicious for at least a year.)
The next morning, in the cold, blue, early morning light of wintertime Berlin, I toasted a piece of bread, spread it with salted butter (ever since reading this and then trying it, I have to put salted butter under my orange marmalade - only one example of the many ways Amanda Hesser has given me an education in food over the years) and then put a thin layer of my fresh Seville orange marmalade on top. And. Well. You know.
It was beyond.
It put all those store-bought marmalades and canned-fruit marmalades to shame. This orange marmalade, folks, it tasted alive, for lack of a better word. It was so fresh, I could almost faintly pick out orange blossoms and sunshine in my mouth. I'm not even kidding! The flavor was out of this world. Life-changing. Transcendental.
(Hugo stared at me with such outrage on his little face while I was eating my toast and he was stuck with baby Bircher müsli that I put a corner of my buttered, bitter-oranged toast in his mouth, figuring he'd recoil at the grown-up flavor. HA. He licked his chops and opened his mouth up for more.)
And you know, it was such a thrill. The best part, besides my little arsenal of bitter sunshine in a jar, was really the doing of it all. I'm already excited for next February and that is saying a lot. BERLIN.
Seville Orange Marmalade
Makes about 9 jam jars
Inspired by Nigel Slater's recipe in Kitchen Diaries II
1.3 kilos Seville oranges
2 kilos granulated sugar
1. Wash the oranges. Score the peel of each orange with a sharp knife in quarters and remove without damaging the fruit. Slice the peel thinly or thickly, depending on your taste, and put into a very large cast-iron pot. Squeeze the peeled oranges into the pot, taking care to put any seeds aside. Deseed the remaining flesh. Chop the flesh and add it to the peel. Put the seeds into a mesh tea ball or a muslin bag and put in the pot. Fill the pot with 2.5 liters of cold water. Cover the pot and let sit for 24 hours (I left mine on the stove.)
2. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil. Uncover the pot and let simmer for 45 minutes or until your peel is, as Nigel says, "soft and translucent."
3. Remove the bag or ball of seeds from the pot, squeezing or scraping it for every last bit of pectin. Add the sugar to the fruit mixture and stir well. Raise the heat and bring the marmalade to boil. Let cook for anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the marmalade, when spooned onto a little plate that you put in the freezer, forms a thin skin. Ladle the marmalade into clean jars, close them tightly and turn them upside-down to cool overnight. You can wipe any remnants of sticky jam off them in the morning (freshly filled, they'll be too hot to clean up).