At the risk of startling more than a few of you, I feel it timely to point out that Christmas is coming, (at an alarming rate of knots), and the goose is getting positively obese. I’m not telling you this to induce the cold sweats of Christmas-shopping-yet-to-be-done, but from a purely practical point of view. If, like me, you’re of the ‘everything from scratch’ persuasion, you really need to be getting on with your Christmas cakes, mince and puddings. But in terms of offering recipes for those old chestnuts, I’m not about to enter the fray. Way too subjective. No, this week I’m campaigning in defence of a much-maligned ingredient, and one that is quite indispensible to myriad festive classics – glacé peel.
I’m well aware that peel is not to everyone’s taste – I myself grew up hating the stuff with an inflexible passion, but over time have come to realise that there is peel, and then there is PEEL, if you follow.
Thanks to the laziness and general beige-ification of mass-produced foods, most of us today only know glacé (or candied) peel as that finely diced, insipid and implacably nasty stuff found in sweaty little packs on supermarket shelves. We tend to associate it with foods we eat out of habit, but possibly hate (in my case, Christmas cake). It’s become a real going-though-the-motions type of ingredient.
Like so many previously esteemed culinary crafts -and candying fruit surely was esteemed-, the process has been bastardised by time, mechanisation and a less than discriminating market, (or perhaps in fairness one that doesn’t know any better).
In its original form glacé peel – be it made from citron (cedro), lemon or orange – is a succulent, jube-like pleasure, headily fragrant and glowingly pretty. During the slow process of candying, natural citrus oils are drawn deep into the skin from the outer layer of zest, along with brine and sugar syrup, saturating the peel and imparting a gorgeously glassy – i.e glacé – appearance. In France and Italy, this luscious sweet-meat is not merely the obligatory addition to heavy festive baking, but a relished and costly treat to be savoured au natural.
Candying fruit is a true artisan craft, requiring great skill and patience. In years gone by, European candy makers would flaunt their talents through displays of whole pineapples and great hands of bananas – all perfectly preserved in this manner, luminously lovely as if they were carved from glass. Like so many traditional crafts, even in its home-lands, it is a dying art. Little has ever been written about it – especially in English – and it’s a skill many years in the making.
Well I wasn’t about to let that get in my way. When it comes to clever food – and candied peel is quite the cleverest – I have a child-like need to understand, to know how it works. And bit by bit, like many foods before it, the baffling mechanics of glacé peel consumed my every thought. So I spent untold hours reading, bought a sack of sugar, purloined a load of lemons, suffered some nasty burns in unlikely places, and in an around-about sort of way, taught myself to candy.
The following recipe, the fruit of my labours if you will, produces something akin to a true Italian or French-style glacé peel. The finished goods should be translucent, delicately flavoured and fairly dry to the touch, and if stored correctly will last for several years.
But this isn’t one of those quick-fix, boiled-in-syrup and rolled-in-castor-sugar affairs so often presented as glacé peel. This is a recipe for people who take their kitchen projects seriously, and for people who find happiness in geeky authenticity. People like me.
Technically, it’s possible to candy any sort of fruit, but so far my own ability and inclination has not extended beyond citrus peel. That said, if you can manage it with a watermelon (why does that sound so indecent?) I just might want to marry you – gender irrespective.
At any rate, this recipe works swimmingly with oranges and lemons, but for some reason limes just don’t play nicely with the process – instead becoming leathery and ruddy.
All-up, the whole hullabaloo takes 2-3weeks; whether you’re working with 200 kilos or 200 grams of peel. Don’t let that put you off though – for most of that time the peel will be sitting in a bucket of syrup or brine, quietly minding its own business. The process relies on very little actual cooking, (which would impart a marmaldey-bitterness to the peel and damage its lovely svelte texture), instead employing the process of osmosis to draw tasteless, treacherous water from the tissue, and replace it with sweet, preservative sugar.
This recipe is designed for roughly 1 kilo of peel, but you can safely multiply without risk of incident.
1 kg organic citrus peel
1 kg+ sugar
1 kg salt
2 cups+ glucose/dextrose powder (available at the supermarket or a home-brew shop)
1. Use only organic citrus peel -the thicker the better. (The skin of conventionally grown citrus is not intended for human consumption, and is therefore doused repeatedly with some very nasty things indeed. Organic fruit is not spray-free by any means, but the chemicals used are considerably less life-threatening.) Peel the fruit into two or three large sections (this is purely an aesthetic thing), and take care to remove all fruit pulp.
2. Make a brine solution from a kilo of non-iodised sea salt stirred into to about 8 litres of cold water. Add the peel and use a weighted plastic colander or sieve to keep it completely submerged. It’s important that nothing metallic is left in contact with the brine; the slightest hint of rust will taint an entire batch of peel. Keep in a cool dark place and drape with a tea towel to keep out flies.
3. Check the peel each day and carefully remove any scum or mould that forms on the surface. The peel will require approximately 1 week in the brine.
4. After 1 week, drain and rinse the peel in fresh water.
5. Make a syrup from 4 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar and 2 cups glucose powder. Bring to the boil and simmer until sugar and glucose are dissolved. Remove from the heat and add peel.
6. The next day, remove peel from syrup, add 1 cup of sugar and re-boil. Remove from heat and return peel to hot syrup.
7. Repeat daily for five days.
8. At the end of five days the peel should look quite translucent and the syrup will be very thick. Remove peel from syrup and carefully wipe away any excess. (The left-over syrup can be used as a sauce for desserts/cakes.)
9. Dry the peel in a very low oven (well below 100° Celsius) or a dehydrator, until the pith no longer exudes syrup when gently squeezed. Take great care not to over-dry or burn the peel.
10. Once dried, allow peel to cool completely. Rub with a very small amount of olive oil (to prevent desiccation and crystallisation). Keep in an airtight container in the fridge.
Use your peel (roughly chopped) in Christmas cake, fruit mince, Christmas puddings, hot-cross buns, Panettone, Pandoro, Cassata, sliced very thinly and served as part of a cheese platter, or dipped in good quality dark chocolate.
So forget all you think you know about glacé peel, because believe me – this is not just any old peel.
Have you started your Christmas baking yet?
What do you have planned?