During the busiest season of the year, who has time to spend hours in the kitchen? And yet few gifts thrill people more than a package of homemade treats. The exclamations of delight, messages of gratitude, and semi-serious marriage proposals make those hours of toil worthwhile. In more than 20 years of mailing out holiday cookies and candy, I’ve learned to start as early as possible and make items that can be stored for weeks and won’t crumble or fall apart.
Candied citrus peel meets those requirements. Candying fruit is a culinary art in Europe and the Middle East, traditionally used to preserve precious produce and render inedible fruit rinds into something delicious. It has a bad rap here because most people only know the Day-Glo candied fruit in supermarket fruitcake. Good candied citrus, sold in fancy food stores and online, is expensive.
Making it, however, is neither expensive nor difficult, just time-consuming. The only cooking equipment you need besides pots is a candy thermometer and a bain-marie (double boiler). The weekend before Thanksgiving is a perfect time for a cook—already in the kitchen prepping for the coming holiday feast—to set out a pot of sugar, water, and citrus peels to simmer on a back burner. The resulting candy can be presented on its own, dipped in chocolate, or baked into a variety of holiday sweets.
After mailing out the goodies, I do a second round of cooking to provide hostess gifts and food baskets for friends and family close to home. These include another citrus treat—seasonal Meyer lemon curd. Spread on toast or eaten straight from the jar, it provides a bright, sweet finish to a hectic season.
Candied Orange Peel
(Adapted from June Taylor)
I used to use a recipe that called for boiling the peels, then scraping away the white pith, a long and laborious process. But San Francisco Bay Area jam and preserve guru June Taylor explains that the object of long, slow cooking in sugar syrup is to extract the bitter moisture contained in pith and replace it with sugar. Sweet! Stored or shipped tightly wrapped in an airtight container, candied fruit will stay fresh for at least six months.
4–6 medium organic Valencia oranges (or any other citrus fruit)
4⅓ cups organic sugar, plus more for final coating
¾ teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
Good-quality dark chocolate for dipping (optional)
- Cut oranges in half and juice them, reserving or drinking the juice. Cut each half into quarters, removing the stringy membrane from the pith.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the peels, and cook until they are completely tender and offer no resistance when chewed, about 30 minutes. Drain and cut into ¼- to ½-inch strips.
- In the large pot, combine 4⅓ cups water with sugar and optional cream of tartar. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add orange peels, very gently bring to a simmer, and cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer registers 226–230°F.
- Remove peels with a slotted spoon and drain in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Set a cooling rack over a baking pan and scatter peels over the rack in a single layer. (Leftover syrup may be reserved to flavor drinks or poach dried fruit.) Let peels sit for 24–48 hours. Toss in granulated sugar to coat. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate.
- If desired, melt chocolate in a double boiler or a low-temperature oven and bring it back to room temperature. Dip peels halfway or drop them in chocolate to coat. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and refrigerate until chocolate sets.
Makes about 1 cup of candied peel. Prep time, 35 minutes; cook time, 1 hour and 30 minutes; rest time, 24–48 hours.
Meyer Lemon Curd
Grapefruits, limes, or oranges may be used instead of lemons. For a lighter texture, the curd can be made with entire eggs instead of just yolks.
6 large egg yolks
¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest (about 4–5 lemons)
¾ cup strained lemon juice (about 3–4 lemons, depending on size and juiciness)
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces and kept chilled
- Whisk all ingredients except butter and place in the top of a double boiler. Bring water to a gentle boil over medium heat. Lower heat to keep water at a steady simmer.
- Whisking often at first and constantly later, cook until mixture thickens, becomes glossy, and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Adjust heat if necessary. Do not allow mixture to come to a boil.
- Remove mixture from heat and add butter one piece at a time, whisking until each addition is melted. Use a mesh strainer to remove any lumps in the custard.
- Spoon into sterilized decorative jars (just run them through the dishwasher); cool and refrigerate, tightly covered.
Makes about 4 cups. Prep time, 20 minutes; cook time, 10 minutes.
Swiss Spiced Honey Cookies (Leckerli)
These sturdy bars are from a class of Swiss holiday cookies that feature candied fruit, honey, and nuts and keep well for weeks. To keep them from drying out, add a slice of fresh apple to the tin.
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup honey
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons kirsch
½ cup finely chopped candied orange peel
1½ cups whole almonds (about 8 ounces), chopped fine (but not ground) in a food processor
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or orange juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Line bottom and sides of a buttered jelly-roll pan, 10½ x 15½ x 1 inch, with parchment paper, and butter the paper.
- Whisk together flour, spices, baking powder, and baking soda. In a heavy saucepan, heat honey and sugar over medium-low heat, stirring just until sugar is dissolved.
- Remove pan from heat. Stir in kirsch, orange peel, and almonds. Stir in flour mixture and cool 5 minutes.
- With floured hands, press dough evenly into pan. Put in oven and immediately reduce temperature to 300°F. Bake 25–30 minutes until just golden but not dry. Watch carefully, because even a few too many minutes in the oven will make the dough too hard.
- Cool in a pan on a rack. Invert dough onto a cutting board. Discard parchment paper and invert dough again.
- Make glaze by heating juice, zest, and granulated sugar in a small saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
- Sift in confectioners’ sugar and whisk to combine. Pour hot glaze on dough and brush evenly with a pastry brush until glaze crystallizes and whitens. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into 2 x 1½-inch rectangles. Store in airtight container for up to 5 weeks.
Makes about 42 cookies. Prep time, 30 minutes; baking time, 30 minutes.
Cathryn Domrose has written about science, health, and fitness for more than 20 years, most recently for Nurse.com, a national publication for nurses. She lives and cooks in San Francisco.