There's more to Seville oranges than a jam session; I am currently drenched in pungent aromatic oils and perfume as I zest, slice, and squeeze this year's crop
And not because I am making marmalade. People divide into marmalade makers and marmalade receivers. I have always been sufficiently well-endowed with benevolent relations who, in January, make a point of dusting off their preserving pans, reviving muslin sieves, and sterilising jars collected throughout the year, to have little need to perform this ritual myself.
The result is an array of homemade marmalade in my cupboard - some with dramatic splinters of peel in a lightly set amber jam, others with fine wisps sitting in a preserve that is halfway to being a jelly. It's usually a prized recipe that the maker adheres to year after year. I think I'd be suspicious if it radically deviated from the norm.
Marmalade eaters also divide into types: you either like it every morning without fail, or now and again, as I do. My real interest lies with the fruit itself. Citrus aurantium is a bitter or sour orange usually known as Seville - where they line the streets at this time of year. As every poet would have it: golden embers on green branches.
As anyone who has visited Seville knows, the city is a tantalising look- but-don't-touch environment; I used to itch with frustration at not being able to pick the orange trees.
Seville oranges are distinctively gnarled, squat and rather soft, with a coarse skin that conceals a multitude of cells containing aromatic oils, the flavour of marmalade - it is these that sweet oranges lack. Cut open, they reveal a plague of seeds and bitter flesh which, when squeezed, renders a mouth-puckering juice. To cook them with plenty of sugar is the natural thing to do.
Before their sweet-fleshed cousins arrived, these were the norm. Up until the 19th century, orange in a recipe meant Seville in all its sourness, used as you would a lemon. Yet if you ask a greengrocer what Seville oranges should be used for today, sure as eggs is eggs, the answer is marmalade.
Not so much a tragic waste as underuse. The intensity of orange flavour you arrive at when employing the zest and juice of Seville oranges in sweet recipes is positively awesome. It reminds me of commercial orange sorbets inside an orange shell which are obviously laced with fake essences. But this is the real thing.
I think of Seville oranges as being equivalent to lemons - when you add sugar, you get a dynamic balance of sweetness and acidity you can only dream of with an ordinary orange. In fact, I find the flavour of Seville oranges so strong that I sometimes blend their zest and juice in with ordinary oranges. Certainly in a sorbet, the flavour of marmalade is striking, even without going through the jam-making process.
But it's all very well banging on about how wonderful they are - the sadness being their season is so short. They do freeze whole surprisingly well, however, as does the juice - the main drawback being that once defrosted they become harder to zest. But I'll definitely be chilling down a batch this year. I can think of a number of summer puddings that would benefit from a little essentially bitter orange.
Steamed orange syrup pudding with vanilla custard, serves 6
2 tbsp golden syrup
110g/4 oz unsalted butter
150g/5 oz caster sugar
2 large eggs and 1 yolk
zest and juice of 2 Seville oranges
175g/6 oz self-raising flour, sifted
Spoon the syrup into a buttered 900ml/l12 pint pudding bowl. To make the sponge, cream together the butter and sugar. You can do this in a mixer or food processor. Add the eggs and the yolk, then the zest and juice, and the flour: incorporate this as quickly as possible. Spoon sponge mixture on top of the syrup.
Place a circle of buttered paper parchment on top of the pudding, then secure the surface with foil - tie this with string. Steam in a covered saucepan for one and a quarter to one and a half hours so boiling water comes two-thirds of the way up the sides of the pudding. Run a knife around the edges of the cooked pudding, place a plate on top and invert it. Serve with the hot custard.
570ml/l pint milk
1 vanilla pod
7 large egg yolks
75g/3oz caster sugar
Pour the milk into a saucepan. Slit the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the milk. Bring this to the boil with the pod and infuse for 15 minutes. Remove and discard the pod.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until they are pale. Blend a little of the milk with the egg yolks and return this to the saucepan. Cook the custard over a low heat, stirring it until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon, though it must not boil. Strain through a sieve, if storing it, then cover the surface with cling film. It can be reheated, but again it must not boil.
Orange curd tart, serves 6
This orange curd is exactly the same as you would spread on your toast in the mornings, and it is much quicker to make than marmalade, although it won't last as long.
The tart needs to chill overnight for the curd to set to the right consistency, and for the pastry to yield a touch.
75g/234 oz unsalted butter
75g/234 oz caster sugar
12 large egg
125g/412 oz plain flour, sifted
15g/12oz ground almonds
6 large eggs
250g/9 oz caster sugar
zest and juice of 3 Seville oranges
2 tbsp double cream
To make the pastry, cream the butter and sugar together, you can do this in a food processor, then add the egg, the flour and ground almonds. Form into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/Gas 5. Roll the dough 0.25 cm/18" thick on a lightly floured surface and line a 23cm/9" case, 2.6cm/1" deep with a removable collar. Run a rolling pin over the top of the sides to cut them.
Weight with foil and baking beans and bake for 25 minutes until lightly golden. If necessary, remove the foil and give it another few minutes until it is fully cooked. Remove the outer collar.
Prepare the orange curd while the pastry is resting: whisk the eggs, sugar, zest, juice and cream together in the top half of a double boiler, and cook over simmering water in the lower half until it is a thick custard, stirring constantly. This will take about 5 minutes. Strain it into a bowl, cover and chill until the orange cream is cold and has firmed up.
Spread the cream in the pastry case, cover and chill overnight. Just before serving, spoon the passion-fruit seeds over the custard. Pull the husks back from the physalis and twist them at the base and decorate the tart with them. Dust with icing sugar.
Seville orange sorbet, serves 6
I feel I should suggest you fill the inside of a hollowed-out orange with this, but I'll settle for it in a small glass bowl with some dark chocolate thins on the side.
Liquid glucose is available from some supermarkets, otherwise your chemist should sell it. It is this that provides the silkiness of texture, and stops it from freezing too hard.
Ideally, eat the sorbet as soon as it is churned. If I am entertaining then I make the mixture up beforehand and put the machine on at the beginning of dinner.
6 Seville oranges, scrubbed
350g/12 oz granulated sugar
1 tbsp liquid glucose
275ml/12 pint water
3 sweet oranges, scrubbed
Zest three of the Seville oranges and place zest in a saucepan with the sugar, glucose and water, and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Allow to cool. Juice both the Seville and the sweet oranges and add this to the syrup, then strain into a jug, cover and chill it. Freeze in your ice-cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions
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