I remember reading the Little House on the Prairie books, especially the part set in Wisconsin when Laura was overjoyed to receive an orange in her Christmas stocking.
As a child, I found her wonder at a single sweet orange hard to fathom, but now I get it. In November, when I peel that first navel orange, I prize the moment when I rupture the thick peel and it releases a fine spray of orange-scented oil into the air.
My own holiday citrus ritual consists of sitting around with my family and stripping easy-to-peel satsumas, biting into some of the small, juice-filled sections, sharing others, and then starting again until a pile of cuplike rinds grows.
One of my favorite holiday desserts is macerated citrus. To macerate means to soak or steep a food in a flavored liquid. In this case, it’s tangerines, grapefruit, and navel and blood oranges.
The peels are cut off with a knife and every trace of pith is removed. The jewel-like segments are then cut free from their membranes (as shown by Helen Rennie in a blog post) and marinated overnight in their juices with sugar, lemon, and optional splashes of Campari and gin.
The next day, the fruit and the syrupy juices it swims in taste like an elixir. I spoon the chilled fruit into a martini glass and pour the mixed citrus juices over the top. It’s nice served with a sugar cookie or a dark chocolate truffle.
Perhaps you will decide to make macerated citrus for your loved ones. And then you may wonder what can be done with all that peel that must be so carefully removed.
Candied orange and grapefruit peel are a treat, but making them is a process that requires a candy thermometer and several calm hours at your disposal.
I have neither of those things, so instead I found myself using a Microplane grater to shave the zest from the fruit before I cut it up. Grated zest can be stored in the freezer until you are ready to use it, as long as it is tightly wrapped in plastic film.
What else to do with all that zest? A perusal of the Joy of Cooking gave me the idea to make citrus-infused sugars.
I mixed grated orange, lemon, and grapefruit zest into sugar in a ratio of one heaping tablespoon of zest to one cup of sugar. Immediately the sugar soaked up the oils from the zest. In an instant, the slushy granules were incredibly aromatic.
This made me euphoric, until I came down from my aromatherapy high and realized I had no uses in mind for my divine-smelling sugar. Then, envisioning lemon-sugar cookies and orange-perfumed flan, I made a plan to give the infused sugars to my friend and my sister, baking fiends both.
That left my favorite, the ruby grapefruit sugar. This came close to becoming an at-home spa treatment, until I had the idea to make a grapefruit simple syrup.
Simple syrup is widely used in mixing cocktails. But what’s unique about simple syrup imbued with grapefruit is the slight edge it has, a bit like marmalade. While sweet, grapefruit’s personality lies in its bracing and refreshing nature.
Pour a few tablespoons of grapefruit simple syrup over ice with soda water and a squeeze of lemon, and you have a non-alcoholic citrus spritzer for the holidays that’s a far cry from the sweet kid stuff.
What a valuable asset to have waiting in the refrigerator when guests arrive, I thought. Plans to use the grapefruit syrup for citrus beverages of an alcoholic nature — a variation on the Negroni? — are already swirling in my head. Fresh-squeezed ruby grapefruit juice shaken with a slosh of syrup and a shot of vodka, perhaps served in a martini glass with a grapefruit sugar rim? Mulling over the perfect marriage of Campari and grapefruit, I can’t help but think that a Campari and soda spiked with grapefruit simple syrup would taste mighty fine.
Another of my favorite citrus recipes is Orange Caramel Sauce. Serve warm sauce with vanilla-bean ice cream. Or, to dress up pound cake, gently poach orange slices or orange supremes (segments of orange free of pith, peel, and membrane) in some of the caramel sauce, then serve the caramel-poached oranges with the cake and a spoonful of mascarpone.
For edible gifts suitable for hosts, friends, and family alike, consider a marmalade of grapefruit, oranges, and lemons. You don’t have to wait until Seville oranges are in season to make marmalade; instead of the bitter Seville orange, this three-fruit marmalade gets its snap from grapefruit and sour lemons.
It’s the easiest marmalade I’ve ever made. There are few of those time-consuming tasks associated with making orange marmalade: no separating of the peel from the pulp, no tying up of seeds in cheesecloth.
You merely slice the whole fruit, boil it in water, let it set overnight, and then cook it with sugar the next day until it gels. Because the pith is left in, there is bitterness to what would otherwise be just a sweet jam.
But that’s why we like citrus: it’s not just sugary. Citrus is an irresistible blend of sunshine-sweet and slap-in-the-face sour. It makes winter worthwhile.
Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.