Marmellata di limoni
As much as I am an advocate of simplicity in the kitchen – simple procedures, simple flavours, a handful of good ingredients and a quick, delicious result – there is also something about a process that I have always enjoyed. I find having a patience-requesting, detailed process in front of you actually quite meditative and relaxing, and when there are those rainy days when you don’t want to leave the house and have no where you need to rush off to (a bit of luxury for me these days), then making jam is just one of those things that I find a rewarding way to slow down.
It doesn’t need to be complicated – two ingredients are all that is needed in this case. In fact, making this marmellata di limoni is extraordinarily simple, you just need a few hours up your sleeve, some good music or good company and a watchful eye. I’ve been plotting making lemon marmalade since moving into our house a few months ago and discovering the lemon tree in the backyard. I’m actually not much of a jam eater (though I do make some exceptions, and when I do, I have a thing for tangy, bittersweet marmalades, eaten with plenty of butter on warm toast), I do prefer making it (like with this rose petal jam or this sweet tomato jam) and giving it away than eating it all myself.
In Italy, jam – marmellata or confettura – is a tradition found all over the peninsula, just as you’d expect from any cuisine with strong peasant roots that use the seasons to dictate what’s on its tables. It’s usually eaten for breakfast on fette biscottate or turned into crostata (jam tart). Marmellata di limoni is made most notably where you find profuse amounts of lemons, such as along Campania’s Amalfi coast, where the lemons grow larger and sweeter than anywhere else, and Sicily, where lemons have been growing since the Middle Ages, one of the many exotic and beautiful things brought to the island from the Middle East when it was an Arabic island.
As I said, this is not a complicated recipe at all. Quite the contrary. It requires boiling the lemons whole, then chopping, rather than the other way around, which makes for somewhat less effort in the end. It sounds like an awful lot of sugar, but this is the classic ratio for citrus marmalades (1 to 2, fruit to sugar) and we’re talking lemons here – I tried to use less sugar but it’s just a bit too tart; rudely so, making your mouth pucker. If using naturally sweeter lemons such as Meyer lemons (a cross between a lemon and a mandarin or orange) orAmalfi lemons you could get away with much less sugar – taste it as you go when at the step where you stir the sugar through your pan.
The result is a softly set, topaz coloured marmalade that spoons and dribbles just so; not too sweet, not too sour, but bittersweet. Marmalade tends to bring out the anglo-saxon in me. I let this lemon version melt onto buttered toast, drizzle it over some natural yogurt and have you ever tried a spoonful in a mug of black tea to sweeten it? This would also be lovely to cook desserts with, in a tart like this crostata, brushed over a plain margherita cake or used in a jam cake. And although I love this jam just as it is, it would also go beautifully infused with elderflower, fresh ginger, fresh rosemary or speckled with black vanilla.
For a bit of marmalade inspiration, I looked at Nigel Slater and Poires au Chocolat as well as old Sicilian recipes, which are usually a version of the one found in Marmellate e Conserve by Enza Candela Bettelli (in Italian, 1986). While the English style of marmalade results in a clear, jewel-like, soft jam punctuated with finely sliced rind, the Sicilian recipes for lemon marmalade involve passing the cooked, whole lemons through a passaverdura, a food mill, for an opaque puree that is then combined with the sugar and thickened over the stove. Below is a classic method inspired by an English marmalade, but if you want to try it the Sicilian way, simply replace the step where you scoop out the insides and slice the rind by passing all of this minus the seeds through a food mill (it will pass through the pulp and rind while sifting out unwanted bits such as the membranes, which are discarded). Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Marmellata di limoni
Makes about 2.5-3 litres of marmalade
- 1 kg organic, unwaxed lemons
- 2 kg sugar
Wash your lemons and cut off the little buttons on the tops, then pop them in a large pan of water (about 2-2½ litres) and boil them whole until the skins become incredibly soft – about 2 hours, but if they’re small, 1 hour might be enough. Remove the lemons, saving the water left in the pan and topping up if necessary to have about 1½ litres of liquid.
Open up the lemons and scoop everything out with a spoon, leaving the skins nice and neat with no pith. Place the insides (pith, seeds, pulp and all) in a strainer over a bowl to drain. Chop the skins as finely as you can, which can be a bit fiddly only because they’ll be so soft and a bit slippery, which will likely lead you to a rustic, even chunky sort of marmalade (if you are pedantic about the width of your marmalade skins, you may prefer the method where you chop the skins before cooking them, a method I find much more tedious).
Place the skins back into the pan, along with the sugar. Strain the pulpy/pithy mass you extracted from the inside of the lemons, adding the strained juice and pulp back into the pan. Tie the pith and seeds leftover in your strainer into a “bag” of muslin or cheesecloth and with kitchen string, tie over the side of the pot so it is fully submerged in the liquid. This will help set the marmalade, thanks to the pectin in the lemon seeds and pith (some will say that this bit is unnecessary and the marmalade sets anyway, probably due to the boiling of the whole lemons earlier, but I like to do it anyway, just in case, and it’s all part of that process that I enjoy).
Bring the marmalade to a boil and boil rapidly for about 20 minutes for a soft set. To test it, you’ll want to have put a little saucer in the freezer earlier, place a blob of hot marmalade on it, pop it back in the freezer for 30 seconds and take a look at it. Poke it or turn the plate a little, if it crinkles, you’re done.
Leave the jam to cool for 10 minutes or so then ladle the hot jam into clean, dry jars, warmed in the oven (beware of stray fingers, this jam burns and I speak from experience! I now leave the hot jars in a baking dish on the counter and ladle the jam into the jars without touching them to avoid burns). Seal the lids tightly (a dishcloth helps protect your hands) and set aside. As the jam cools, the seals should tighten and contract. You’ll hear popping when this happens! Store somewhere cool and dry; once opened, store in the fridge.