How difficult could it be to candy orange peels?

Recently I came across my mother's battered "Joy of Cooking" from the 1940s. It was the source for our family's favorite Christmas confection, orange peel candy. While the startlingly sour-then-sweet taste of candied orange peel might not seem like an instant attraction for children, I always liked it. Perhaps the candy's frosty, jewel-like appearance was what appealed to me.

Leafing through the stained and coverless cookbook, which now starts with page 51 and ends with the hors d'oeuvre section of the index, I found Candied Grapefruit or Orange Peel and on page 745.

"This doesn't look too hard," I mistakenly thought. Having no experience making orange peel candy - or any candy for that matter - and no recollection of the process other than eating the end product, I set about preparing the orange and grapefruit peel.

Penciled alongside the recipe was an emphatic "No!" next to the instructions to boil the syrup until absorbed in the peel. "Take off before it boils quite dry," my mother had scribbled.

With this tip, I was confident all would go well. Soon the peel was boiling in sugar syrup over a red-hot burner. I would remove the peel before all the liquid was gone, just as my mother had advised. Not knowing what to expect it to look like, I didn't realize I was in trouble until I saw the edges of the peel begin to caramelize.

Quickly I pulled the pan from the burner and attempted to remove the peel. It was practically impossible. My confection was far closer to a hard candy than the delectable morsels my mother used to make. After finally prying the sticky strips from the pan, I decided to try again. This time I thought I would make a smaller batch so it wouldn't need to boil as long.

Again it failed. I then decided it was time to consult additional sources. Boiling the syrup seemed to be my problem - most recipes advised simmering.

When I still had only partial success at the end of my third trial, I thought perhaps I should give up. But a bright sunny morning and a floor swept free of gritty sugar encouraged me to try the recipe one more time.

One of the books had mentioned that high humidity and candymaking do not mix, and it had been rainy the past several days. So i decided to try once more.

Finally, on the fourth try, the recipe worked. It produced candy just as I remembered - crisp on the outside, and moist on the inside. Delicious.

Candied Orange or Grapefruit Peel

2 cups peel from navel oranges or grapefruit, trimmed of any brown spots and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips (do not remove pith, or white part)
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
1/2 cup water

1. Place peel in a medium saucepan. Add water to cover peel by about 2 inches. Do not cover pan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain peel into a colander. Return peel to pan and again cover peel with water by about 2 inches. Do not cover pan. Bring to a full boil and then drain peel into a colander. Repeat three times. Lay a towel on a counter or tray and spread peel on towel in one layer.

2. Stir together 1/2 cup water and 1 cup of the sugar, in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until liquid begins to boil. Cover tightly and boil three minutes.

3. Remove lid and stir in peel, mixing well. Lower heat so mixture simmers. Maintain a gentle bubbling until grapefruit peel is completely transparent (approximately 25 to 30 minutes) and edges of orange peel are transparent (approximately 30 to 40 minutes). Stir mixture occasionally the first 5 minutes of cooking; then leave undisturbed except to poke down peels that rise above the liquid. Check frequently, adjusting burner temperature as necessary to maintain a gentle simmer.

4. Meanwhile, line a baking sheet or tray with waxed paper. Place a baking rack on top and set near the stove. When peel is done, remove pan from burner and lift out peel with tongs. Spread it out on the rack to drain for about 5 minutes.

5. Toss peel in remaining 1/2 cup sugar to coat and place in a single layer on a rimmed baking pan. Or, for very evenly coated candy, place six or seven peels (spread apart) in a wire mesh basket. Place basket over a wide bowl and pour sugar over, shaking basket as you pour. Pour remaining sugar back over peel. Unstick peels from basket as you work. Repeat until peel is evenly coated. Dump peel from basket onto wax paper. Handle as little as possible to avoid knocking off sugar. Allow peel to dry for at least 4 hours before packaging. When thoroughly dry, store peels between waxed paper in a tightly sealed container.

Makes 2+ cups.

Note: Do not attempt this recipe in wet or humid weather.

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