This is the one time of year you can turn bittersweet Seville oranges into the perfect preserve. So get stirring...
I sometimes think I enjoy making marmalade more than I enjoy eating it. The first sighting of the essential bitter Seville oranges in early January; that first spritz of juice that floats on the air, piercingly sharp, then softer and more blossom-like; the slow shredding of the peel and pith, and then the slow blip of the sugar and fruit in my largest saucepan. Lastly, the pride of a batch well made and the promise of breakfast toast, marmalade tarts and bittersweet cake.
I have yet to join the ranks of the marmalade-makers who produce enough for an entire year's breakfasts. I much prefer simmering smaller batches, some experimental (less sugar, maybe, or an unusual spice), and am less concerned by the set than perhaps I should be. It is true to say that some jam-makers become obsessed by the set of the preserves. More important to me is a flavour balanced nicely between bitter and sweet, just the right amount and thickness of peel, and a loose, glistening texture. I am in search of a marmalade that quivers rather than bounces.
The standard recipe for an everyday pot of breakfast marmalade is twice the weight of sugar to fruit. If you boil it for long enough, with the correct ratio of water, you will end up with little pots of amber success. But you can have fun, too. Last year I added cardamom pods to mine, and would happily do that again, though with more confidence. Other well-trodden paths include adding whisky and grapefruit. This time I made a batch with ginger root and another where I swapped the oranges for limes and lemons and peppered everything with a twig's worth of lime leaves.
The sugar-with-pectin route is not for me. I do see why people would want to use a sugar infused with added setting agent, but the risk of a solid set is too high, so I do it the natural way, hoping for a softer, more shimmering result. And if that doesn't happen, well then I simply boil the batch up again the next day.
With each passing year my marmalade gets better and, in a fit of excitement, earlier. And there, I suspect, lies the clue to a good set. Use the fruit as soon as you see it. Don't let the oranges get too soft - ripe fruit is sweeter and likely to contain less pectin, losing its bittersweet magic and therefore their point.
Orange, lemon and ginger marmalade
Makes about 4 x 500ml jars
Seville oranges 1 kg
granulated sugar 2 kg
fresh ginger 100g
Using a small sharp knife, score the skin of each orange and lemon deeply into four from top to bottom. Remove the peel - it should come away easily in four pieces - then slice into thin strips. My preference is for pieces no thicker than a matchstick, but the texture of marmalade is very much a personal thing.
Squeeze the juice, with your hands, into a jug or bowl, then roughly chop the pulp and add it to the juice, removing and retaining the pips as you go. Pour in 2 litres of cold water.
Tie the pips in a muslin bag and push into the pulp and leave overnight. (Their pectin will help the marmalade to set.) The next day, tip into a large stainless-steel pan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, add the ginger, peeled and cut into shreds, then, keeping the liquid at a jolly simmer, leave to cook for about 50-60 minutes, until the peel is translucent. Remove the bag of pips and leave until it is cool enough to handle.
Add the sugar to the juice and pulp and bring to the boil. Squeeze all the juice from the muslin bag into the pan. As the liquid boils, scrape every bit of froth that rises and appears on the surface. This is crucial for a clear finish. Boil hard for 15 minutes then start testing for set. Remove a tbsp of the jam, put it on a cold plate or saucer and put it in the fridge for a few minutes. If a thick skin forms on the surface, it is ready. If not, then keep boiling and retest.
Ladle into sterilised jars and label.
Lime and lime leaf marmalade
Lime is one of my favourite marmalades, but I have never found it the easiest to make. My first attempts saw the lime peel toughening and the colour becoming dark and coppery. The following method requires a bit of patience, but is the best one I have made yet.
Makes 3 to 4 x 500ml jars
lime leaves 10
sugar 1.5 litres
Cut the limes in half and squeeze them, then cover the shells with cold water and leave them in a cool place overnight. This will help them to soften. Store the juice in the fridge. Remove the fruit shells from the water and, with a teaspoon or your fingers, scrape out as much of the pulp from inside as you can bear, putting the pulp and seeds on to a piece of muslin. Tie the muslin to form a little pouch, securing with string. Finely shred the skins with a sharp knife or roughly chop them in a food processor. Squeeze the lemon into the reserved lime juice, then thinly slice or chop the skin and add to the lime skins.
Make the lemon and lime juice up to 2 litres with water. Put the shredded lime and lemon skins into a large stainless-steel pan with the water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down a little so the mixture simmers quite merrily for about an hour, until the peel is soft and translucent. Check its progress regularly, making sure it is not boiling too rapidly.
Warm the sugar on a tray in the oven for 5 minutes or so. Remove the muslin bag from the pan and let it cool. Tip in the sugar, add the lime leaves, but do not stir. Squeeze the pip and pulp bag into the liquid then bring to the boil again and leave it on a low boil for a good 40 minutes or so, testing for set as in the previous recipe.
Put into sterilised jars and seal.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture Credits/ Fancy a jar- Nigel Slater's orange, lemon and ginger marmalade. Photograph-Jonathan Lovekin for The Observer.