I stopped at Rankin’s, the hardware store, to get jam jars and saw they already have sugaring supplies on display—sap buckets, metal drip tubes, plastic piping, and such, just waiting for the sap to start to rise in the sugar maples. This has been such a curious winter—springlike through December and January and now bitter cold. (It was 9º this morning (-14ºC) and starting to look like more snow. But Mumma always said it won’t snow when it’s too cold.) Some folks claim the sap is rising already because of the warm weather in January but I think Eliot Coleman is right and a lot of plant growth depends more on the sun than it does on the temperature of the air. When the sun starts to strengthen in the sky, which it really doesn’t do until the end of February, then all things begin to stretch and grow once more.
The jam jars were because it’s also marmalade season and there are blood oranges in my local market. Blood oranges and bitter oranges are best for marmalade, the first for color, the second for flavor. In Scotland, the heart of marmalade country, they make their jam with bitter oranges, or Seville oranges, so-called for the orange trees that line the streets of the Barrio Santa Cruz in the old part of Sevilla in southern Spain. But I couldn’t find bitter oranges so I made six little jars of blood orange marmalade and right now they decorate my kitchen shelf, sparkling burnished-bronze jewels. It’s as easy to make marmalade as it is to make any other kind of jam. Sugar and the best quality fresh fruit are all that’s required, plus the cook’s strictest attention to what’s going on on the stove top. That last is a problem for me since I get easily distracted by what I’m reading or listening to and don’t always heed what’s in the pot.
This time I overcooked the marmalade and when it set up it was too hard and thick to spread on toast. What kind of marmalade is that? So I called Bonnie Shershow, the jam lady, for advice. Bonnie is actually writing a book about jam and she makes pretty great jam herself, sold at Williams-Sonoma and other places simply as Bonnie’s Jam
“Can I just throw a cup of boiling water into the jam to loosen it?” I asked. “Well, you could,” Bonnie said, sounding a bit dubious, and then she proceeded to lecture me on the virtues of paying attention. A candy thermometer is really the best indicator of done jam. At 210ºF. it should set up properly. You can also tell by dribbling a spoonful of the liquid across a well-chilled saucer (one you’ve put in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator before you start cooking it down)—if it sets up when it hits the cold surface, you’ll know it’s ready. And then there’s that business of sheeting from a spoon, a favorite of old-school recipe writers —you dip a big metal cooking spoon into the simmering liquid then hold it up over the pot. When the liquid ceases to drip and starts to sheet off the edge of the spoon, it’s ready.
But I took the simpler course and threw a cup of boiling water into the too-stiff jam, stirred it around, and brought it back to just simmering, then poured it into the little jars.
All that is getting ahead of myself. Here’s how to make marmalade; note that you’ll need 2 pounds of oranges, a lemon, and at least a pound of sugar:
Scrub 2 pounds of blood oranges with soap and water to get rid of any undesirables. Juice the oranges (it’s a lot of juice) and save the pulp and seeds. This is important because the pectin in oranges (and there is plenty of it) is not in the juice but in the seeds and pulp.
Use a serrated grapefruit spoon to pull out as much as you can of the white pith on the inside of the orange rinds (this is actually much easier than it sounds) and add it to the pile of pulp and seeds, then slice each rind into strips about ¼ inch wide and 1 to 2 inches long. At the same time, grate the zest of a well-scrubbed lemon and add it to the orange strips. Add the juice of the lemon to the orange juice.
In a big kettle, pile up the orange and lemon peels. Wrap the pulp and seeds of the oranges in a cheesecloth bag, tying it firmly so it doesn’t release its contents into the jam. Nestle the bag down into the orange strips.
Add the juice and 2 cups of cold water and set the kettle over medium heat. Bring the whole thing to a simmer, lower the heat if you have to, to keep it simmering, and cover the kettle. Let it simmer for 30 minutes, then remove from the heat and let the contents cool down. You can leave the kettle overnight if it’s more convenient.
Next day, or when the orange stuff has cooled, remove the cheesecloth bag, squeezing it to release any juice in it, and discard. Now measure the contents of the pan, all of it, and add sugar. How much sugar? It’s hard to say. I like marmalade that is not too sweet, just enough sugar to bring out the flavor of the fruit and help the liquid to set up. For 6 cups of stuff in the pan, I add 4 ½ cups of sugar, but you could go up to 6 cups if you like really sweet jam. Let’s say, add sugar to taste and leave it at that.
Return all of this to the kettle and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to keep everything mixing properly. Now, when it comes to a simmer, you must be patient and watch it carefully. Put a saucer in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator, if you wish, but also get out and attach a candy thermometer to the side of the kettle. Watch the temperature and when it reaches 210º, take the kettle off the heat. Test it by dribbling some juice over that frozen saucer. Or let it sheet from the edge of a metal spoon. That’s when you know it’s done. Now just pack it into sterile jars, screw down the lids, and wait for them to ping, indicating a firm seal. And that’s it.
Note: Some people, myself included, like to follow the old Scottish custom of dropping a teaspoon or so of good Scotch whisky on the top of each little jar–before screwing on the caps, naturally.