If there is a stove, and if there is a washing machine, I am not truly on vacation. I’m merely doing my thing somewhere else. Yet, getting out of your day-to-day environment gives you perspective. And it keeps you from doing all, or enough, of the mundane tasks of a typical day, so that you do a few different things, and see things differently.
A new background makes you truly see things. It alerts the brain to the need to gather information because you are not in your den, in the animal sense, I suppose.
We go to the desert. That is our place to go. Pitts and I were married there. We have a little place surrounded by just the right amount of dirt so that the children can go at least a little bit native. They dig large holes in the ground. They throw dirt. They help me gather stones for my labyrinth. They wander. They pick oranges and lemons. They follow rabbits and Gambel’s quail about. They pick cactus spines out of their hands and feet.
Mind you, this spot is now smack in the middle of Scottsdale, but it was once in the middle of the desert. We aim to keep it pretty much what it was 50 years ago. So, it is a tiny spot of desert, in the middle of a city.
Pitts’ grandfather planted orange and lemon trees on the property years ago and they are very happy still today. We were there on this visit during peak citrus time and it occurred to me that I would be a fool if I didn’t preserve some of the oranges and lemons in some way. The great thing about that, is that my head was filled with unproductive worry and stress over good problems to have and making marmalade stopped me in my tracks.
Marmalade is made with oranges, traditionally bitter oranges. But, what I didn’t know is that if you have fresh oranges, you need not use any pectin because oranges and lemons have ample pectin in their seeds and pith. In fact, many people use orange and lemon pith and seeds to make homemade pectin to use in other jams and jellies. The pectin, it seems, is more potent the fresher the fruit. And since I was starting this process a mere fifteen minutes after pulling the fruit off of the tree, I thought it seemed like a project with a high likelihood of success.
Using a fruit’s own pectin, though, means you actually have to know what you are doing. And I do not. I had never made marmalade before. So, I had to watch my marmalade like I was an eagle watching a rodent. I watched the pot boil and observed every change in state. I observed every change in temperature, from one degree to the next. Sometimes it hopped up by five degrees in a second, and then it would languish at a temperature for an almost unbearable length of time. But, I was fascinated by it. I dropped little beads of jelly on cold plates to watch how it firmed up, or didn’t. I stirred and watched the orange peels become translucent.
My first batch turned out almost candied. My oranges have very thick skins, and I elected to use them just the way they came off the tree, with thick membranes and deep orange skins. I soaked the fruit in water overnight and then cooked the fruit in that same water. On my first batch I made the bone-headed error of pouring the sugar into the room temperature water and fruit and had to cook the sugar in with the fruit the whole time. Perhaps it wasn’t bone-headed. It was just one way of doing it that perhaps I will not do again. But the upside of the choice was that I ended up with something akin to candied orange peels in orange candy. It was so thick and dense that it was almost not spreadable. Yet, when it was spooned onto a hot buttery English muffin it softened into the very essence of a winter orange. I ate two jars of it. I will get to that. As I went about this meditative experimentation, I leafed through Pitts’ grandmother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking and America’s Cookbook, taking some tips and leaving others while I considered the sensation of handling an old crumbling dust jacket and how the internet is really now “America’s Cookbook,” for better or for worse.
My second attempt fared better from a traditional marmalade perspective. I’m not going to say that I did anything wrong with either batch because they were my oranges and my lemons and my time and my kitchen and my jars and the marmalade is for my family. It is what it is and it is wonderful. But there is a learning curve, to be sure. This time I withheld the sugar until the oranges had bubbled away for almost an hour. I even warmed the sugar in the oven for 20 minutes while the oranges were cooking, so as to add hot sugar to hot oranges, and not slow down the cooking process. I watched the thermometer dutifully and stopped the cooking the second that the temperature reached 220 degrees. That last degree…from 219 to 220 took about five minutes to achieve.
Sitting, sterilized jars, waterbaths, cooling…the labor, in the childbearing sense, of preserves, is wonderful. I’m always a millimeter away from a hospital-worthy burn. I never manage to put enough water in the kettle and have to scramble to boil more to add. I get the rims of the jars so sticky. I was away from my own tools and improvising with too-small pots, and worn out oven mitts, and an old but faithful O’Keefe and Merritt stove. Nothing was optimal, except that everything was perfect.
And the second batch was wonderful. Would I send it to an English friend? Perhaps, just so she could laugh at how a Texan in Arizona interpreted an English delicacy. Before I began, I perused a million photos of perfectly peeled oranges, perfectly de-nuded strips of exactingly and microscopically sliced zest. Mine was filled to the brim with big knobby pieces of pith and peel. I read recipes that made it all a walk in the park. I spent several hours conversing in my own mind with Corby Kummer of the Atlantic about a 1997 article he wrote about learning to make marmalade. Again, he also talked of methods and measures, but not so much about recipes. Marmalade seems to be something one just eventually gets the hang of.
I surmise that being a truly gifted jelly maker, or anything-maker is about awareness and mindfulness. You can follow a jelly recipe to the letter and use a box of pectin to thicken it right up, but when you are really playing off the relative strengths and weakness of different fruits and having to understand which are acidic and which have pectin naturally and which need a little boost, then you become a jelly maker, not just a person making jelly. It is a journey. I’m still at the trailhead tying my shoes.
I’ve settled on my formula for the time being. Six or seven medium oranges, cut in quarters and sliced into segments. I peeled one lemon but kept all the seeds inside of it. I allowed the fruit to soak overnight in six cups of water. Then I heated the fruit in the same water until bubbling and allowed it to bubble away until the peels became softened and somewhat translucent. I removed the lemon (which still had most of the seeds intact) and pressed its liquid back into the pot, discarding the pulp and seeds. Those who cut out a lot of pith and seeds from the oranges will put them in a muslin or cheese-cloth bag to boil with the fruit and then press out the silky pectin at this point. I warmed a plate of sugar in the oven at about 250 degrees. Five cups, to be exact. I added the sugar to the bubbling fruit and heated the jelly to 220 degrees, which took about 38 minutes from the time I added the sugar. Then I let the marmalade sit, scraped off any foam and I ladled it into sterilized jars and gave it a 10 minute go in the water bath. It easily made six 8-ounce jars of marmalade.
Between batches of marmalade we climbed mountains. Rather, we climbed a mountain twice. Rather, my children and husband climbed a mountain twice and I joined them on one of the expeditions. Camelback Mountain is in the center of the city, sticking right up like a sculpture in the midst of houses and businesses. They went without me the first time because, this sounds harsh, but, I don’t spend a lot of time truly alone. I like a bit of truly alone and thank my lucky stars when the noise and action re-enter my view. But I need a certain amount of truly alone. So my husband goes with the kids and they ascend Camelback. Things to know. Though Lily got to the top for the first time at age four, just before her fifth birthday–it is not a joke. The true athletes show up in the dark and actually run all the way up and all the way back down. Then the smart people show up. If you start around nine, you can climb without being too much in the way of the locals. If you show up at 10, it is a full blown tourist trap with people of all manner of fitness levels and neuroses trying to get up and down with varying success.
Here’s the good bit though. This is the spot where I get to watch my children scamper and billy-goat up a mountain and for two hours I get to revel in their all-rightness and excellence and their splendid fearlessness. I don’t know how it is where you live but where I live one gets a lot of messaging about how their children are not good enough…in a million different ways. But in the great wide open, when you see your eight-year-old son scamper over a rock face and appear as a spot of color 200 yards up the trail, you know with perfect clarity that your child is indeed OK, utter perfection as a specimen of what an eight-year-old should be. A classroom is really not the best place to judge this.
The funny thing is that I have aged significantly since the last time I went up the hill and my children, and my husband, just floated up the hill by comparison. And, I forgot…I forgot, that I don’t particularly love heights. And, I remembered that the only reason I was ever able to go sky diving was because I had a parachute and I was physically attached to a person who intended for me to leave the plane and was being paid to put me on the ground safely. I would have gladly put on a parachute on certain parts of this climb. And my very deep sense was that I wished that I was not doing it with my children because I was having trouble fearing for their lives effectively, while somewhat concerned about my own. The answer is that they were completely fine and didn’t need for me to worry about them at all. I am capable of letting Pitts stay close to them and not worry about them while I go about climbing it my own way, talking myself into confidence in my own abilities and enjoying being very aware and mindful of my own anxieties on the hill, so that I could let those anxieties float away. I should have liked to do it again, to see if it really worked. But, the new year was upon us and the new year’s resolution of every human in sight of the mountain is to climb it, whether they ought to or not. I’m not, it seems, a huge fan of crowds under these circumstances either. Next year.
I heard the clock strike midnight, though I didn’t wait up for it. WE awoke at a reasonable hour and considered whether to play in the dirt or play in the dirt. To pass the decision-making time, I made breakfast. I cooked up some crumbled breakfast sausage. I toasted English muffins and slathered them with butter and a big scoop of orange marmalade made from the trees a mere 30 feet away. I topped the marmalade with a heap of the sausage and then a fried egg over easy to lay on top of it all. It was one of those breakfasts not soon forgotten. In fact, I feel rather warm and happy thinking about it now. That is how to start a new year.
Soon enough, we had to head back to Texas, though. Lily picked a huge basket of lemons and oranges to bring home. It was time, really. School was ginning back up. Things to do. Worries to worry over. Dinners to laugh over. Plans to make. I always like going home, actually. But, I hope to have the chance to do it all over again next winter, preserving citrus and memories and cool sunshine in amber while watching my children grow beyond me.
Citrus Preserved by Corby Kummer in The Atlantic
Three Citrus Marmalade by Marisa McClellan from Food In Jars
How to Make Perfect Marmalade by Felicity Cloake from The Guardian
Making Marmalade by Cathy Ackroyd from The Happy Homesteader in Mother Earth News
At Home with SaraBeth Levine: Spreading Joy and Marmalade by Alex Witchel from The New York Times
Oranges & Marmalade by Stephanie Kordan of The Sensual Foodie