One of the dangers of becoming a proficient canner is that every time you run across unusual, or interesting, or just exemplary fruits or vegetables, you are bound to buy a (usually unreasonable) quantity and find a delicious way to pack them into jars for safe keeping. So it was a few weeks ago, when perfect little pints of kumquats turned up in a market nearby.
For most of my life, my only exposure to kumquats was their annual appearance in my mother's Thanksgiving centerpiece. While we were assured that they were edible, peel and all, they were generally eaten only on a dare; in my experience, the bitterness of citrus peel holds little appeal for American children.
Last Thanksgiving, I bought a bagful of them for purely aesthetic reasons and fashioned my own centerpiece out of kumquats and pomegranates. One of my guests, an Argentinian woman, swooned over them and taught us all how to eat them properly: roll them between your fingers to release their juice, then bite into an end and suck out the insides and finish by eating the peel. Oddly, their sweetness is concentrated in the peel, which nicely offsets their assertive tartness. To my grown-up palate, kumquats are the ideal expression of citrus, with their perfect balance of sweet/tart/bitter/perfumed. When I found them this spring, it struck me that they would make a fine marmalade.
I had a devil of a time finding a recipe that felt right. Too many included other fruits or exotic spicing, or prescribed boneheaded preparation of the fruit (remove the seeds and grind the kumquats coarsely?). All asked for way too much sugar, and two even called for added pectin (this last sent me for a brief lie-down with a cold cloth to my forehead). In the end, I faked together my own treatment, and the result was perfect. I've made marmalades from grapefruit, limes, Seville oranges, Meyer lemons, and mixes of several of these; I'll never bother with any of them again. Kumquat marmalade it shall always be.
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Makes about 4 half pints.
3 pints kumquats
3 - 4 cups granulated sugar *
3 – 4 cups cold water
* A general rule of thumb for making fruit jams, preserves, etc., is to add sugar in equal weight to the cleaned fruit (e.g., 1 pound of sugar to 1 pound of fruit) but, for my taste, this makes unpleasantly sweet jam. I limit the sugar to no more than 3/4 of the weight of the fruit, and usually as little as half. For citrus, I go for the higher end of the range to balance the bitterness.
When I made this, 3 pints of cleaned sliced kumquats weighed in at 800 grams (28 oz. or 1.75 lbs.), so I used 600 grams (21 oz. or 1.3 lbs.) of sugar, which just happens to be 3 cups. If you have a scale and want to be absolutely right on, by all means weigh everything. Or just use 3 cups of sugar (4 if you like it sweet) and call it good.
There are lots of times you can fake it in the kitchen with a dull knife, but fiddling with little tiny fruits and vegetables isn't one of them. The best tool for this job is a razor-sharp paring knife; you can pick up a decent plastic-handled one for about 6 bucks.
Wash the kumquats in a sink full of lukewarm water.
Take a thin slice off the end of each kumquat, then slice it in half lengthwise. Notch out the central membrane core and prick the seeds out with the tip of the knife. Reserve the membrane and seeds in a small bowl (these contain a high percentage of the natural pectin, which will be 'harvested' to help set the marmalade).
Slice each half crosswise very thinly.
Layer the fruit and sugar in a large nonreactive bowl and stir gently to combine. Cover and let stand for about 12 hours or overnight. Stir every few hours if you're nearby.
Tie the seeds and membrane in several layers of cheesecloth and place in a large sauce pan with 3 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand until cool enough to handle.
Gently squeeze the cheesecloth bundle over the pot to remove most of the liquid, then set the the pot aside (you'll use this liquid in the final preparation).
Working over a small bowl, squeeze and massage the cheesecloth bundle to extract as much translucent goo as you can (this is the pectin). Using a finger, scrape the pectin off the cheesecloth into the bowl. Then scrape the pectin into the reserved cooking liquid and whisk to combine. Measure the liquid and add enough water to bring it back up to 3 cups.
Scrape the fruit into a large heavy-bottomed pot and stir in the pectin liquid. Bring to a boil and boil rapidly, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches the gel point, generally pegged at 221°F; my preference is for marmalade with a slightly softer set, so I stop it at 218°F.
Remove the pan from the heat immediately once the gel point is reached. Let stand for about 5 minutes, then stir gently to distribute the fruit. Ladle into hot, clean half-pint jars. Screw or clip on lids, then process in a water bath for 10 minutes.
Kumquats are still available, but will soon be gone for the summer, so find some now. They should be back in markets around Thanksgiving time.
On the overnight while the kumquats were sitting in sugar, I remembered this lovely post from Lucy Vanel about preserving clementines in sugar syrup, and I thought ‘hmmm, maybe kumquats would like this, too?’. So I sent Mr. Mora out for another 3 pints the next day; they finished their treatment yesterday, though - curiously – there are only about half as many as I started with. They're so absurdly delicious I haven't been able to resist sampling a few every time I upped the sugar bath. I need to confit another several pints and hope I can save a jar full to share.