“You can sometimes count every orange on a tree but never all the trees in a single orange.” – A.K. Ramanujan
Here’s how I can tell this has been a rough winter: I just finished my last jar of Midnight Marmalade. My friend Charles makes it in his kitchen in Amherst every year and mails a shipment to us just before Christmas. I don’t sleep well unless there’s at least one jar of Midnight Marmalade in the house. As mood lifters go, it’s powerful stuff.
The supply he sends usually gets me through even the gloomiest and most chaotic winter—although January 2021 took its toll—and well into spring. I try to dole it out, gorging only in cases of emotional turmoil, but sometimes I cheat. I have been cheating a lot over the past few months. Although my calendar informs me that spring is here, I have one spoonful left, and the state of the world has not taken a turn for the better. I think it’s time to buy some oranges and make an emergency batch.
Charles Mann is a journalist and author. He has written several nonfiction books about social and scientific matters, but all of them deal at some level with the history and politics of food. He’s probably best known for 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. His enthusiasm for and interest in food from the so-called New World has inspired a few slightly daffy projects during his trips to Seattle, where he returns often to visit friends and family.
A few years ago, a mutual friend developed a mania for first-principle cooking, which is a fancy way of describing any attempt to cook something from extreme scratch. So a group of us decided to make tortillas using an indigenous strain of blue corn Charles brought us from Mexico. We nixtamalized (simmering in water and calcium hydroxide for a couple of hours, then soaking in the liquid for another eight hours) the kernels, we ground them by hand, we mixed the masa, we pressed it into tortillas, and we fried them. The results were not spectacular—no fault of the blue corn—and we broke two tortilla presses in the process.
His marmalade, however, is always delicious. A few years ago, sensing I might someday need to supplement my supply, I asked him for the recipe. Since he is easily the most obliging and genial person I know, he immediately sent it to me. Here it is, such as it is:
I’ve come up with this absurdly complicated system where I use as little water as possible. It varies with the type of fruit, but in most cases I soak the citrus overnight in a little water with a drop-lid on top. I add in the pectin I get from soaking the seeds in a pouch made of cheesecloth, then boil said citrus at high temperature, stirring like a madman so it doesn’t burn. When it reaches 213 or 214 degrees I add the sugar, which I’ve heated in the oven to 225 degrees.
And that’s it. How you are supposed to get the finished marmalade hot-water processed and safely into canning jars is up to you. But don’t worry; you can find detailed instructions for all that in many cookbooks. There’s a concise but thorough primer by Camilla Wynne on the Saveur website that will tell you everything you need to know about making and canning marmalade. By the way, Wynne also recommends marmalade as excellent cure for the winter blues.
If you want to emulate Charles’s marmalade and you’re wondering about the exact measurements and proportions, that is also up to you. Charles is an adventurous cook, and he expects anyone interested in making marmalade to be one too. Each of his batches is different, depending on his inclination and the ingredients he’s able to source. The labels on the jars of Midnight Marmalade do provide a few clues, but just a few. He likes to cite the source of most ingredients, including the local water and sugar from his neighborhood supermarket. He also includes all-caps disclaimers about his state of mind during the manufacture of the marmalade. Here’s the list of ingredients for a variation he calls Bloody Meyer:
Organic Blood Oranges
Amherst Meyer Lemons
Amherst Key Limes
Dying Hilltown Water
MADE WITHOUT CONFIDENCE
And this is the ingredient list for the very tasty and aptly named WTF:
Weird Stephenson-Little Hacienda Lemon/Buddha’s Hand Hybrids
North Amherst Seville Oranges
North Amherst Key Lines
NO ADDED PECTIN/MINIMAL SUGAR
MADE WITHOUT FORETHOUGHT
It’s typical of Charles that he offers more information about provenance than process. If you’ve read his books, you know that he has always been interested in where food comes from. Whenever you see the word “Amherst” in front of a citrus fruit on the list, that means he has grown it himself. The first time I raised my eyebrows in an email about the possibility of his raising citrus in Massachusetts, he sent the following reply:
We grow the fruit on trees that are in big pots. They spend the late spring, summer, and early fall outside, on our deck, providing us with shade. Then we bring them into our sunspace for the cold months, where they barely hang on. You can practically hear the sighs of relief when we take them back outside.
Charles usually mentions the fact that his marmalade is made with minimal sugar. He and I agree about that. Too much sugar obliterates the bitterness of good marmalade. As I experiment with recipes and methods, I always try to reduce the amount of sugar as much as I can without ruining the shelf stability of the preserve. It works, most of the time.
But it’s a fact that making marmalade is an imprecise science. A couple of years ago, my friend and colleague Roger Downey gave me his favorite marmalade recipe, which is based on one called Blood Orange Marmalade, from the book Sweet Sicily by Victoria Granof. It calls for equal parts blood oranges, sugar and water, by weight. That’s it. You’re free to crank out as much or as little as you need. I use less sugar than this recipe calls for, but otherwise I follow the same basic steps that Charles and Camilla Wynne outline in their recipes. And it does make marvelous marmalade.
My favorite recipe, made with kumquats, is designed for people like me who begin consuming the marmalade the moment it’s cool, so there are no instructions for hot-water processing. I just decant it into jars with lids, put them in the refrigerator, and hope the supply lasts more than a couple of weeks. I suppose you could freeze it too. I have never tried, for the abovementioned reason. It never lasts long enough to spoil.
If you have more self-control than I do, follow the traditional canning instructions, and store your bottled sunshine on a dark shelf in your cellar, against the apocalypse. As for me, I’m going to need my supply immediately to get through the next few months of worldwide weird and menacing weather, fat cats complaining about student-loan forgiveness as they insist on being made whole on their giddy financial gambling sprees, politicians and their angry incel followers attempting to hold the universal uterus hostage, and fragile politicians who whine about woke snowflakes while they pass laws against the terrible offense of saying “gay” in front of schoolchildren. In fact, I’m going to need more jars and a bigger spoon.
Quick and Simple Kumquat Marmalade
Makes 1.5 cups
I prefer making kumquat marmalade because it is quicker and easier than the kind made with oranges. But you can mix other citrus in this recipe as long as you simmer them in water first to tenderize them. You can skip this step if you’re using only kumquats. I usually double this recipe because, see above.
- 2 cups kumquats, sliced thinly and seeded
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- Selected spices of your choice, for example, vanilla bean, star anise, cloves, cardamom pods, allspice berries, etc.
The most time-consuming and tedious step is slicing and seeding the kumquats. I like to use my OXO Good Grips Grate and Slice set, a self-contained, inexpensive, and unpretentious little gem. You have to hold the kumquats in your hand when you do this because kumquats are too small to be used with that knuckle-guard device that’s designed to guide larger fruits and vegetables safely across the very sharp slicing blade. If you’re worried about the possibility of blood in the marmalade, you should get a good small serrated fruit knife (it must be serrated or it will mangle the kumquats more than it will cut them) and slice them by hand. In that case, cut them all in half lengthwise first, lay each half on its flat side and slice it as thinly as you can manage.
There are plenty of seeds in kumquats, but don’t worry about chasing them all down as you slice. Knock them out of the way with the knife if they accumulate on the cutting board. and then pick the rest out of your pile of slices when you’re done. I never get all the seeds out and I don’t really care because I don’t mind eating them in the finished product. And they’re a beautiful color.
Dump the kumquat slices, sugar, and your selection of spices (or none at all, if you prefer) in a smallish non-reactive saucepan and allow them to meld for 15-20 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for another 15-20 minutes or until the liquid has reduced and the mixture reaches your preferred thickness; it will thicken more as it cools. When it’s cool, spoon the marmalade into a container, cover it with an airtight lid, and store in the refrigerator. It will keep for two to three weeks, assuming you don’t eat it all tomorrow directly from a spoon, like an impoverished aristocrat in a Russian novel.
Finally, if marmalade is not your jam, I’ll leave you with my favorite recipe from Charles Mann. He discovered this delicacy while researching his upcoming book, and he posted it on Twitter with the accompanying photograph and description. I can’t think of a single modification that would make this dish any better, and I look forward to preparing it someday if I ever find myself in Clayoquot Sound during herring- spawn season.