Oh yes, you read me right. I’m quite excited about this one. For some reason it took me more than a month living here to realize we lived one and a half blocks from a monastery. I guess in my life up till now, monasteries are the stuff of fairy tales. Maybe they really exist, in Tibet or some such equally fairy tale-ish place. But not just down the street!
Our neighborhood monastery has a big gate that’s usually open, with a sign that says Monastery Gift Shop, as welcoming as an iron gate on a ten foot tall brick wall can be. We kept meaning to check it out, but hadn’t.
Anyway, two days ago walking back from the park I saw some strangely bulging trash bags, right next to the trash can out back of the monastery’s tall brick wall. The strange way they were bulging said to me– oranges! Or maybe, grapefruit. Unless they were throwing out three bags full of softballs…. I ripped one open. Indeed some kind of citrus, but what? Yellow and sourer smelling than grapefruit. Whatever they were, surely I could marmalade them! I marmaladed a big box of limes from the dumpster once, so I know that it’s not just for oranges.
But I couldn’t do anything that involved the peels until I found out if they had been sprayed. I had to venture past the iron gate, into the mysterious, walled off lair of the monastery. Would there be nuns or monks inside? Would they be adorably kind and gentle, or tight lipped, harsh and in need of a good lay? Only one way to find out.
With my Toddler and Babe in tow, brandishing my wedding ring like a shield (in case they should suspect my virtue), I entered the iron gate and scaled the wide marble steps to the open door. Inside it was, predictably, completely silent– all dark wood and effigies. There was a sign that said, “for gift shop, ring bell” (the bell was, sadly, just the push button type). I rang and waited. A few moments later a deep-set wooden window opened. I suddenly wondered if I had anything to confess.
It was a woman. Not in any penguin outfit, but nun-looking none-the-less. Older, and definitely the sweet variety.
I apologized for the interruption (of course I imagined she’d been deep in prayer, but more likely she was just balancing the books and contemplating how to lure more shoppers into the gift shop) and then explained myself. Her eyes lit up when she understood my question. She said they were lemons. That they’d had the tree for years, for grafting onto, but never did. The lemons weren’t very good, though they’d gotten better in recent years. No, they hadn’t been sprayed, and yes, I could have as many as I wanted.
I left with a gleam in my mind’s eye. Behind that tall wall was a lemon tree. All the lemons I could want (well, how many lemons can a person want anyway?). But what else? What else were those industrious nuns growing for God back there? What other secrets did they have to discover? I found myself burning with obsessive desire to see behind the wall. I had an instant little fantasy, where I bring them back a jar of their lemons turned marmalade, and they invite me in. They give me tea. They show me around to all their unused fruit. Trees. They let me pick their lemons.
Yikes! Let’s get back to the marmalade!
The bags, which I collected the next day with my bike trailer, were full of lemons, yes. But these were the fallen fruits. They were almost all split open on one side, and having sat in the sun for a day or two, soft and fermenty around the split. I took a few in the house and cut them in half, the good half was still perfectly firm and fresh. I juiced them and tasted the juice, as delicious as lemon juice straight up can be! I foraged online for a recipe, and trialed a batch of marmalade. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have a scale, I didn’t actually follow the recipe, just the technique.
Okay, not really the technique either. I’m one of those notorious recipe disregarders. I always look at two or three recipes when I’m cooking something new, I write at least one down. And then proceed to completely disregard it. It’s like a dysfunction. I always have excuses. ‘I don’t have a scale’ or, ‘But these lemons are only half good, I can’t boil them whole.’ Sometimes I get arrogant and second guess the recipe writer. Or I combine recipes heedless of the importance of one ingredient to another.
For a dysfunction it’s fairly functional. I occasionally have disasters, but most often things work out fine. Not perfect, but good enough. I do learn things. Like why you should follow recipes.
At any rate. My first batch of lemon marmalade candied. Maybe I added too much sugar, or not enough liquid. Either way I let it boil down too much, and got a very soft ball stage. I got a combo of syrup and candied lemon peel. I whizzed it up in the food processor to get a somewhat better texture. It’s actually surprisingly good. I had some on my toast this morning.
In the middle of making my second batch, I willed into reality our neighbor bringing by a big bag of Satsumas. These little mandarins are ubiquitous here this time of year. I personally find them too sweet to be very satisfying. But I had dreamed that the best marmalade would be made from both satsumas and lemons, for a perfect balance of sweet, sour and bitter.
The proof will be in the pudding. I have some bubbling away on the stove, and some in the crock pot (I’ve been using the crock pot for canning type projects which need a low simmer for a long time. Works great, and there’s less waste heat) I did have one taste when I tested for sugar content, and wowza. Yu-um!
Marmalade is all about peel. The original definition in fact was just a preserve thickened with pectin from fruit peels. Many fruits have pectin in the peel and seeds. Now marmalade is generally considered to be just citrus, but the antiquated practice of using the peel for pectin remains. It’s a real old school jam!
I worked off of three recipes. The most complete and thorough from Delia Online (I don’t know who Delia is, but the recipe sounds British). This was the one where you boil the whole fruits first, and as I mentioned, that was not an option for me. It was also specifically for Seville oranges, the traditional British marmalading fruit.
Here is the recipe for lemon marmalade from Local Foods, that I more or less attempted to follow. With both batches now done, I can say I don’t know why the hell mine would not gel, and didn’t look remotely “creamy” as the recipe promises. True I didn’t weigh my fruit or measure my sugar, but the recipe gives a fairly large range for sugar, implying it’s not so critical…
And lastly, here’s a recipe and cute blog post from Pots and Pins about Satsuma marmalade. I might try truly following this one next. If I can manage to.
And yes, as you may have gathered, my second batch is now done. I can tell you that marmalade is not exactly easy. But it depends on your standards. What I got is not like a jelly, it’s like soft sweet peel in a thick syrup. You have to use a spoon, but really the toast sucks up the extra moisture and it works just fine, and tastes… wow.
Actually, I had hardly ever eaten marmalade before and I think I might have a new obsession. I can imagine it’s not for everyone, at least not the stuff I made. It’s quite bitter. I don’t normally go in much for the bitter flavor. I always wish I would, since many wild greens are bitter. But the marmalade is bitter-sweet. And this is somehow incredibly alluring, seductive. Like the monastery itself, I feel this marmalade has a secret I am compelled to discover.
And I will, oh, I will.