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Trying to learn patience? Make marmalade

First We Eat: The entire process will require varying degrees of this attribute but the final product is well worth it

My eldest son and I were out for lunch with my elderly mother yesterday, all of us slurping pho at my son’s favourite noodle joint. Mom is recently widowed. “Your father’s mind was like a laser,” she said, “and mine is set on real-time motion.” I glanced at my son with a sudden flash of insight. He and I are both quick witted, and notoriously impatient with people whose mental functions take a second longer to hit send. Dad had been frustrated with most people all his life. Was this part of the reason behind that?

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My dad was an electrician-turned-farmer who should have spent his life designing airplanes and bridges. Late in life he designed and stitched together multi-dimensional containers and holders of all sorts from fabric — saddlebags, knife kits, tool wraps — and seemed most himself while drafting and building prototypes for some new idea. I wondered about my paternal grandfather, Bill. He had designed tapestries for LaFrance Textiles, combining mathematics with an artist’s esthetic. I hadn’t known him. Had he too been quick witted and short tempered? No, my mom responded — my grandfather had been a quiet, soft-spoken man, long on thinking and short on words, but invariably patient.

We spent the rest of the afternoon completing Mom’s city errands with her, and my son was careful and attentive, shortening his long stride to match Mom’s hesitant walk, giving her his arm for support.

Three decades ago, my friend Phyllis gave me a sampler she had embroidered. It shows a cannon blasting one word — “NOW” — below the line, “Please grant me patience.” How well she knew me! That sampler has adorned my office all these years, and poems have been written about my shortage of this particular attribute.

But I can tell you that although I have learned patience, my innate nature is still to get ’er done quick. Like my son, I have learned to adapt my pace when I am in companionship with someone else whose life is wired at a different speed. But I can still hear that cannonball explode in my head: “NOW!”

Cooking, quilting and child rearing do teach a human being patience. All three involve transformation that takes place over time. At this time of year, making marmalade is a classic example of that transformation and the varying degrees of patience it requires.

Purists will choose bumpy bitter Seville oranges from Spain to make into marmalade, but grocery stores in the small city I live close to mostly don’t stock Seville oranges when citrus season rolls around, so I have learned to make marmalade from other citrus, solo or as blends — although I always add lemon juice and zest to help set the natural pectin present in citrus.

Purists may also peel the fruit, separate the segments from the membranes that divide them, and squeeze out all the juices from the membranes before wrapping them in cheesecloth with any pits. The pits and membrane will go into the pot with the chopped peel and segments, but get fished out for discard near the end; the resulting marmalade will be sparkling clear. I have done this from time to time, but if you want, you can skip a couple of steps, as I mostly do, and simply cut up the oranges and cook them. Like me, you will end up with marmalade that is not clear but cloudy. The good news is that it tastes just as good no matter how long or short on patience you are. As for Mom, neither she nor my eldest son make or eat marmalade. (Whenever I made it in the past it was strictly for me and Dad.) So first we eat, and then we can debate the merits of clarity versus not clear. Oh yeah, and patience too.

Marmalade

  • 2 lbs. oranges (Seville, blood, navel, tangerines)
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 6 c. water
  • 4 lbs. white sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, paste scraped out and reserved

Mix up the types of citrus depending on availability, your palate and preferences. I am partial to grapefruit in the mix. This makes 8 to 10 half-pint (8-oz.) jars.

Slice the oranges thinly, then quarter them. Combine the oranges, lemon juice and zest, water and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, then add the halved vanilla bean and paste. Cook the mixture over medium-high heat until it reaches 223 F on a candy thermometer. Alternatively, check for set by placing several small saucers in the freezer; spoon a bit of marmalade onto one plate and wait to see if it congeals. If it stays loose and runny, keep cooking the marmalade. Once the marmalade is thickened, ladle it into sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath.

photo: dee Hobsbawn-Smith

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