Sunday, July 04, 2010
Meyer Lemon Thyme Marmalade
For all my love of my current home (Portland, Oregon), I must admit that California just blows my mind sometimes. A few years ago I made the drive from Portland to the Bay Area, and at one point I casually turned to look out the window and the view just knocked me out. Napa, maybe? The picture had changed from the usual grassy verge to these amazing, breathtaking golden-blond hills. It was like the setting for some romantic period movie, secretly hidden in this very country. "Oh my god, why doesn't everyone want to live here?" I managed to gasp. My boyfriend turned to me, patiently. "Everyone does want to live here," he explained. "These are some of the highest property values in the entire country." Ah, California.
Truth be told, it's not just the rolling Tuscan hills, dirt-cheap amazing produce, or general golden glow that endears California to me. It's this: everyone I know in the Bay Area has a meyer lemon tree in their backyard. Everyone. I think they're part of a state-issued program, like the dividend checks from Alaska's permanent fund. If by chance you don't have one of your own, you live next to someone who does. And you have at least an apricot, fig, or persimmon tree instead to console you.
Last month a friend made the drive up from Berkeley, and offered to bring some lemons with her (it's possible I might have insisted). I made it clear that I wasn't looking for a couple token fruits, but a cardboard box full of them. Which I was given. We had a few blissful weeks of fragrant whisky sours, and the zest is still infusing in a jar of soon-to-be meyer limoncello. But time marched on, and I didn't want the remaining lemons to go soft. So I turned to marmalade.
I've tried a few marmalade techniques over the years, and this method is my favorite. I won't lie: it's undeniably fussy, and takes a good bit of time. But the results are lovely. Most methods have you hack up the whole fruit, discarding only the pits. The rinds soften during their long simmer, and the resulting sour/sweet product is delicious. But, inspired by the amazing June Taylor, I adopt a somewhat more involved process. Instead of tossing in pieces of whole citrus, I break them down in a particular way. The zest is shaved off, cut however you like (I tend to use a citrus zester for tiny curls, but some people might favor taking larger strips with a peeler). Then the remaining bitter white pith is trimmed off, and the fruit segments are "supremed," or cut/pulled off of the tough dividing membranes. You simmer the membranes and pits in a cheesecloth bag to extract pectin to set your marmalade, but the spread itself is remarkable smooth and delicious. No bitter white pith, no tough fibrous membranes. Just lovely juicy fruit and sharp candied peel, suspended in clear golden sweetness. Oh, California.
Meyer Lemon Thyme Marmalade
yields ~ 6 half-pints marmalade
6 lbs meyer lemons, washed
2.5 cups water
2 lbs (lbs, not cups!) sugar
~1 Tbsp thyme leaves, rinsed and pulled off the stems (I favor a sprinkling of thyme to play on my Mediterranean dreams of the Golden State, but the marmalade is just as lovely without)
special equipment: cheesecloth, kitchen twine, canning jars and gear
Peel the zest from 2/3 of the lemons, and chop however finely you like (I like to remove tiny ribbons of peel directly from the fruit with a citrus zester, but if you want finished peels that are large enough to see in the finished product, use a regular peeler and then cut the removed peel into bits the size of your choosing). Be careful to remove only the peel, and none of the bitter white pith. Set the chopped zest into your marmalade pot and set aside.
Take the lemons and supreme them. If you haven't done this before, you can find a handy pictorial here, but this is the basic overview: Cut off the top and bottom of the fruit to form level surfaces, and then cut off all remaining pith and peel. Free the fruit from the membranes--with some citrus you'll have to cut the sections out, but with most meyer lemons you can just sort of tug them free with your fingers. Drop the naked, membrane-free fruit sections in your marmalade pot along with the zest. Place all membranes and seeds in a separate bowl. Discard the pith and extra peel. If there's any bits of fruit on the peel/pith you've trimmed, feel free to squeeze its juice into the marmalade pot. Bear in mind that the fruit segments will break down as they boil, so don't worry too much if you can't get them out in one piece.
Add the water to your marmalade pot, and bring to a boil over high heat. While the heat is coming up, lay out a large square of cheesecloth, and place all your membranes and pits therein. Tie it up with the kitchen twine, and add it to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and fish out the ball of seeds and membranes and set it on a plate to cool. When it's cool enough to handle, squeeze it to milk out the pectin. As you'll squeeze, a milky goo will ooze out. Exactly what you want! Let this goo plop back into the marmalade pot (don't worry if it sits strangely in blobs--it will melt once you reheat the marmalade). Squeeze the bag for a few minutes, until you've milked out a few tablespoons of pectiny goo. Add the sugar and thyme leaves, and bring the pot back to a boil.
Keep the pot at a good rolling boil until the marmalade sets. The amount of time this takes will vary, depending on the amount of pectin and water in the fruit. Count on at least half an hour, generally. It's done when a candy thermometer measures 220 degrees (the consistency will also have changed somewhat, and become more thick and syrupy). If you, like me, don't have a candy thermometer, you can do the cold plate test: Chill a plate in the freezer, and then drizzle a small amount of hot marmalade on it. Place it back in the freezer for a minute, then check it. Set marmalade doesn't need to be set like a jelly, but should be firm enough that it wrinkles slightly when you push it with your finger, and you can almost mound it, like slightly-thickened egg whites. Done! Pour into sterilized canning jars and process in a water bath for a shelf-stable product (and adored gift), or pour into any jars you like and store in the refrigerator.