Updated: May 18
I am not, by nature, a serious person, but I am serious about candied peel. I am serious about it because it is a serious thing. Candied peel should be, and can be, one of the most delicious things imaginable. The fragrance and flavour of the skin of a citrus fruit (which is worth as much as its juice if not more) which has been candied to remove any trace of bitterness and preserved in sugar, should be a joy to both look at and to eat. This, however, is rarely the case.
Candied peel in England is normally bought ready chopped in a tub, labelled ‘mixed chopped peel’. It has little flavour, colour, or fragrance. It’s a sour, rock-hard rubble which bears almost no resemblance to the fruit it came from. We throw it in our mince pies, hot cross buns and Christmas cakes without thinking much about it, and then forget about it for the rest of the year. In Italy too, if you buy many a factory-made Panettone, which traditionally contains candied peel, the same strangely-symmetrical sour cubes show up. It is no wonder nearly all children say they hate it, and so many people pick the pieces out. (in Italy there is an enormous market for all celebratory cakes such as Panettone senza canditi - without candied fruit).
Real candied peel should not be like this. Real candied peel should be shining, moist, and intensely fragrant. It should be decadent and delicious and a little bit magical, to reflect the alchemical process through which it is created. True candying, of both whole fruits and citrus peels, is a process by which the moisture in every cell of the fruit is replaced by sugar, thereby preserving the fruit and allowing it to become totally saturated with sugar. This process happens slowly, by heating the fruit gradually in an ever-more concentrated sugar syrup. Some candying processes take weeks, some several months. You can tell a true candy because it should glow in the light, and be almost totally translucent.
Candying is another gift the Italians inherited from the Arabs, along with sugar itself. The Arabs served candied roses and fruits at the end of lavish meals. I have yet to find a whole candied rose, but if I ever do, I think I will never feel sad again.
This process takes 8-10 days, but you only need to do it once a year (in peak Citrus season – ie in the winter or early spring, when you’re stuck inside anyway) and each day demands only 20 seconds. It is less work, less waste, and a lot less mess than sourdough, and everyone seems to be making that, so no excuses!
This quantity makes two large Tupperware containers, or 6 medium-sized jars.
800g of peel - cedro or citron is the best, if you can find it, but I always do orange peel because oranges are so easy to find. The thicker the peel the better. Try and find nice, big, organic oranges that haven't been treated.
1200g of granulated sugar
1200g of water
Peel the oranges (if you want to make this in a natural fashion, eat an orange a day for a few days and you will accumulate enough peel – around 7-8 large oranges. Keep your peel in Tupperware in the fridge until you have enough)
Cut the top and bottom off with a knife, then cut the peel into 4-6 large segments by making incisions down the length of the orange with your knife, and then pulling away the piece of peel.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add the peel and allow it to boil for a few seconds, then drain it and rinse it under cold water.
Repeat this process two more times. (3 boil and rinses in total)
Make a sugar syrup by melting the sugar in the water, stirring once or twice at the beginning to help the sugar dissolve. Once the sugar has dissolved allow the syrup to boil for about three minutes and then drop in your peels and push them down so they are covered with liquid. Cover with a cartouche* and remove from the heat.
The following day bring the whole saucepan to the boil (complete with cartouche in place) and boil for half a minute. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Repeat this process for at least another 8 days (if using thicker peel – such as cedro, you may need 10 days). You can tell they are ready when the peels are completely translucent.
Once they are ready, bring the whole lot to the boil for a final time and then add the honey (this stops them crystallising). Stir gently to dissolve and then decant your peels into kilner jars or Tupperware.
These can be stored in the fridge but they tend to crystallise. If you can store them in glass jars in a cupboard it is better.
* a cartouche is a fancy French way of saying a piece of dampened baking paper which you cut into a large circle and use as a sort of lid, placing it directly over the cooking substance to seal in the moisture whilst it cooks.