You might well be thinking that life is too short to make your own candied peel. You might have a point. Yet the colours and smells that you get to enjoy while you are doing it make the effort seem almost hardly that at all. And your candied peel will be head and shoulders and a busby above the stuff you can buy in those little supermarket tubs.
Fruit peels have been preserved in sugar for hundreds of years. The candying process replaces the water in the peel with sugar and so originally this method was simply just a way of storing the fruit for longer. Now candied peels are synonymous with Christmas foods and as a traditional ingredient in Christmas cakes, puddings and mincemeat. (They also make a damn fine sweet rolled in granulated sugar or coated in chocolate.)
Bear in mind for your Christmas baking planning that the process of candying peel takes a day or so. It might help to spread out the workload by making the peel a few weeks before, storing it in its syrup until a couple of days before making the cakes etc and then dry it out. Or, you can speed-dry the peel overnight in a very very low oven.
To make a lot of peel. Surely enough for your Christmas baking and for sweets with the leftovers:
6 oranges and 6 lemons
1. Quarter the fruit long-ways and use your thumb to prise the fruit away from the pith. Cut each quarter of peel into 1cm or so strips and put them into a heavy pan as you go.
2. Cover with cold water to an inch or so above the peel. Bring to a rolling boil and leave it boiling for a couple of minutes. Then drain in a colander, wash the pan and repeat 5 times.
Resist the temptation to skimp on the rinsing. It is important as you need to both tenderise the peel and get rid its bitterness. The bitter oils will release into the water and unless you keep on removing those by refreshing the water and cleaning the pan then all you are doing is boiling the peel in its own bitterness.
You’ll know the peel is tender enough when a clove can be easily pressed into the skin. When it is, drain the peel and leave to cool.
3. Work the edge of a spoon gently over the pith side of each piece of peel to take off any straggly bits of fruit membrane and excess pith. Be careful not to make your peel bald, though.
4. The next stage is the sugar syrup. Use twice as much sugar to water and you may need to guess-timate amounts. For the quantities of fruit above I need 750ml water and 1.5kg sugar.
Put the water and sugar into a big pan and heat until the sugar dissolves. Heat on high until it becomes clear. Then add the peel making sure it is covered by the syrup. Don’t worry if you have misjudged the syrup – just add more water and sugar, in the same 1:2 ratio.
5. Bring to the boil, and then let it gently simmer for an hour and a half or so. Stir occasionally to move any floating peel into the mix. It’s done when the peel has become translucent and rather like coloured glass, and the syrup has thickened. Take it off the heat and leave the peel to cool in its syrup.
6. Store the candied peel in airtight sterilised jars and cover it with its cooking syrup.
7. To dry the peel out before using: Take the peel out of the syrup, smooth away any excess syrup with your fingers and lay the pieces on a cooling rack which is set over a dish or a piece of baking paper to catch any drips. Put it somewhere warm to dry the peel out like this for a day or so.