When the temperature drops and the wintry rain discountenances outdoor activities, a gratifying distraction on such occasions is to formulate an indoor cooking project. We retreated to the mountains hideaway this weekend accompanied by our friends Tim and Karl, and later Marty and Kel. Tim is an accomplished baker and preserver. (Is there an elegant word for a person who makes jams and preserves? I haven’t found one as yet.) With such auspicious alignments in mind (that is, bad weather and a cooking collaborator), I thought that the weekend would be perfect for my first foray into the world of preserves, jams and marmalades, guided by one who had gone before me with many successes.
But what to preserve? I had some lovely red grapefruit that had been purchased with the intention of being used in a fennel salad; and mum and dad’s meyer lemon tree had also yielded an amazingly good crop of lemons in its first year. With such a bounty, what could one do but make Lemon and Grapefruit Marmalade?
The recipe was fairly easy. 2 grapefruits, 4 lemons, sliced finely, the seeds and some pith preserved in a muslin. Soak the fruit overnight in 2.5L of cold water. The next day, pour into a pot, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Then add 2.5kg sugar which had been warming in the oven for the last 15 minutes of the simmer. Remove any scum that rises to the surface. Cook, stirring for 10 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Then bring back up to the boil, and cook for up to an hour, or until the jam has set. Let cool, pour into sterilised glass jars, and admire! If you want the recipe that I based mine on, here’s a link to it.
There are a whole series of nostalgic memories surrounding marmalade. My grandmother Essie (z”l) was an excellent cook, and was the first person to introduce me to marmalade as a child: in particular, Rose’s Lime Marmalade. And my maternal aunty Wendy had a cumquat tree at her house in Killara, and I remember as a small boy visiting there, and enjoying the most intensely sour and sweet smell of cumquat marmalade cooking on the stove. We had a small sample on hot, crusty bread with butter. Delicious.
Tim and I decided to make another nostalgic treat: melting moments. The recipe was easy – basically a shortbread by any other name, with the crucial ingredient of custard powder added, for flavour and colour. I creamed butter with the seeds of one vanilla pod. Then I combined icing sugar, custard powder and plain flour in a bowl, and beat it into the butter with a wooden spoon. It’s crucial to beat it in lightly, so that you do not work the gluten in the flour. Then we rolled it into small balls, made the characteristic prong marks with the fork tines, and baked in a medium oven for 18 minutes.
Here’s the controversial part. Essie used to make very special melting moments with dulce de leche rather than the lemon or passionfruit icing. For this, she would boil a can of condensed milk on the stove for 2 hours, making sure that the water was always in the pan so the can did not explode. Two hours later: caramel, or dulce de leche. Sandwiched between the shortcrust biscuits, these are incredibly rich and delicious. I can’t ever eat more than one.