Authentic marmalade—the kind made from bitter, sour Seville oranges—is not for wimps. Its sweet, tart, astringent, and spicy notes battle fiercely for supremacy on the palate; it is the fruit preserve of choice among those who love a good fight. No surprise, then, that marmalade is most closely associated with Scotland.
I lived in Scotland for several years and, in my experience, the Scots are a smart, tough-minded, practical lot who have little patience for “whinging” and who readily embrace a challenge. This is a country in which mountains are referred to as “hills,” where the natives express their cultural pride by donning kilts and throwing telephone poles around, and where the ability to hold one’s own in a pub debate is the most admired of social traits. So marmalade is, in my opinion, an excellent culinary emblem for the Scots. A smear of Nutella on your morning toast might gently coax you into a difficult day, but a spoonful of Seville orange marmalade slaps you upside the head and admonishes you to get on with it.
Even the process of making the marmalade smacks of ruthlessly rugged Scotland, and my recipe reflects the non-essential, though culturally correct step of warming up sugar in the oven. It might seem unusual, but I’ve seen it in many traditional recipes, and I think I’ve figured out the reason behind it. Marmalade is usually made during the short Seville orange season (the fruit themselves are a rugged, persnickety lot; they’re available for about three weeks in January and can be frozen whole for several months before using), and I can tell you from experience that a Scottish kitchen can be a chilly place because many homes in rural areas are still not centrally heated. Adding cool sugar to a bubbling pot of marmalade would slow the process considerably. Out of deference to the Scots, I don’t skip this step, even though my kitchen is fairly warm.
Here’s my favorite way to eat real marmalade. I slice a thick piece of sourdough bread and spread it with unsalted butter; then I sprinkle that butter with flaky sea salt. I spoon a generous amount of marmalade over the butter and spread it to the edges. Each bite is sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, and chewy—“gorgeous,” as the Scots would say. You should try it, if you’re tough enough.
First weigh out around 2 pounds of Seville oranges. It’s okay if they’re a bit green or blemished, but I throw out any that have soft spots. Add two lemons for their flavor and pectin. Since all these peels are going into the marmalade, give the fruit a good scrub with a drop of liquid soap and rinse well.
Place the scrubbed fruit in a Dutch oven and add 10 cups of water. Bring the fruit to a boil over high heat.
When the fruit has come to a boil, turn the heat down until the water is just simmering. Cover the Dutch oven with heavy-duty foil (or a double layer of regular foil) and place the lid on top.
Let it simmer away unattended for about 2½ to 3 hours, until the fruit is so soft it can be easily pierced with a skewer. Take the Dutch oven off the heat and let everything cool overnight.
The next day, place the sugar in a roasting pan and cover it with foil and place it in a 250-degree oven to warm through. Put freshly washed jars in the oven, too.
Remove the fruit from the Dutch oven, and leave the water (which is thick with valuable pectin) in the pot. Sometimes the cooked fruit is so delicate the skin breaks, but that’s not a problem. Cut the fruit into quarters and scrape the pulp and seeds back into the Dutch oven reserving the peels.
I like to stack the peels. Yep. That’s right. I’m that person.
There’s still more pectin-y goodness to be extracted from the pulp and seeds, so when all the guts are in the pot, I squish them up with my hand, just to make sure all the pectin is as exposed as possible. Bring it all to a boil over high heat again. After it comes to a boil, let it bubble away for 10 full minutes, which is just enough time to chop up the peel.
I take those stacks of peels and slice them length-ways into 4 or 5 strips and then cut them crossways into shreds. A lot of people complain about the chopping part of marmalade production, but since the fruit is cooked until soft, it’s actually really easy. (Seriously. And not because I’m a trained cook with a fancy knife, either.) You could almost do this with a plastic spoon. Some might prefer to chop the peel in the food processor. I couldn’t possibly comment on that.
When the guts have been boiling for 10 minutes, strain the liquid into a bowl and stir and press the solids lightly, just to get all the good stuff out.
Then, finally, the guts are discarded and the liquid goes back into the pot. Add the chopped peel and bring it to a boil again. This is starting to seem a bit repetitive, I know, but we’re entering the home stretch.
Add the warm sugar to the pot, and stir until sugar is fully melted. Turn the heat up and bring the mixture to a boil. I let it boil for about 30 minutes before I start testing it to see if it has reached the setting point.
After 30 minutes, put a teaspoonful of hot marmalade on a cold plate and place it in the freezer to chill for a couple of minutes. Take the plate out of the freezer, and push at the jam with your finger. If it wrinkles, it’s done. If it doesn’t wrinkle, let the marmalade cook for another 10 minutes and test it again, and repeat the process until it’s done. Then remove the pot from the heat and let it cool and thicken for about 20 minutes.
I want the marmalade to be fairly thick (but still hot) when I transfer it to the jar. This ensures that the peel will be evenly distributed throughout the jars, rather than just floating to the top. When the marmalade is sufficiently thickened, I ladle it into the warm jars and put the lids on and seal.