On Making Marmalade

Each year I aim to make enough marmalade for my family’s needs through the year, with plenty of smaller jars to give away. It’s easy to miss the Seville orange season because it’s short and sharp and seems to be getting earlier every year. January and February is most likely. These oranges look unpromising, small with thick, nobbly, saggy skin. There are no juicy segments of orange under the skin, instead they are all pips and pith. Should you risk a bite, the fruit is mouth-puckeringly bitter.

The whole fruit goes into marmalade making. The thick pith melts to thicken the liquid and the zest becomes the chunky bits. How you slice the skin – slim and elegant or thick and chunky – and how much you include is a matter of taste but the oranges produce what seems an impossibly large amount.  Marmalade making is sticky business but it’s a mindless series of tasks and the results are so much better than anything you can buy in the shops.

Over the years I’ve tried several recipes but I always come back to this one because the procedure eliminates so many potential problems and the quantities are easy to remember. Seville oranges have good setting qualities but adding a couple of lemons, which are high in essential pectin, is a belt-and-braces back up. They also point up the tart yet mellow flavour of the marmalade. Last year for the first time I used a proportion of preserving sugar to safeguard against mildew but I tend to use marmalade making as an opportunity to clear out the half packets of sugar accumulated at the back of the cupboard. Each batch is slightly different. White sugars give a clean taste and bright, iridescent orange marmalade while light or dark palm sugars deepen the colour and enrich the flavour. Molasses cane sugar, which I particularly like, produces a marmalade that is almost black.

Playing around with the basic recipe, adding cardamom or other spices, should be done for the last few minutes of cooking for the strongest flavour, as they’ll infuse while the marmalade cools slightly before bottling. For whisky and brandy, add a splash to the jar as you pour the marmalade in and your breakfast toast will set you up nicely for the day. These tips come from baker Dan Lepard (www.danlepard.com) who also suggests adding Campari or hot smoked paprika with onion and garlic to make a savoury Seville orange marmalade. He is involved in a marmalade festival (www.dalemainmarmaladeawards.co.uk) held in Cumbria, North West England every February (last entries 14 Feb). www.jamjarshop.com sells everything needed for marmalade making and is a fund of information. I don’t possess a preserving pan, so I use my large, deep, heavy-bottomed lidded saucepan. This is important because the marmalade rises high in the pan as it boils and is why you also need a long handled wooden spoon. I collect and re-cycle jam jars but always seem to run out and there is nothing nicer than a supply of lovely new jars to fill. Small jars, ideal for random little gifts, become incredibly sought after. Personalizing labels will become addictive.

Makes 6-8 x 340g jars

Prep: 45 min

Cook: 90 min

10 Seville oranges

2 lemons

2 kg sugar, 500g of which should be preserving sugar

2 litres water     

Place whole oranges and lemons in given water in a large lidded pan placed over a very low heat. Cover and simmer until soft. Use a saucepan lid to keep them immersed, piercing after about 20 minutes to encourage immersion. Time for this varies depending on age and quality of the fruit but allow at least 45 minutes probably much longer. Lift the fruit into a colander over a bowl and leave to cool. Dissolve the sugar in the orange water. Halve the soft fruit, scrape out the seeds and place in a jelly bag or fold of muslin. Tie with string and hang over the side of the pan. Slice or chop the peel thinly; I do all of it because I like chunky marmalade but how much peel is a matter of taste. Stir the peel into the liquid. Bring to simmer, stirring to ensure the sugar is dissolved, then boil hard, stirring occasionally, until setting point is reached. This varies and may be as little as 5 minutes but more likely to be 15. It will rise up high in the pan then subside but once it begins to look syrupy, test by placing a teaspoonful on a cold saucer. Cool then push with your finger. If it wrinkles a little it’s done. Leave to settle in the pan before pouring into hot sterilized jam jars. A momentary rest stops the peel rising up the jar as the jam cools. Cover immediately, cool and label with the date and type of sugar before storing. Ready to eat immediately.