A homesick American
On a dim side street that cut through the buildings like a crack in a rock there was a nondescript little candy shop. It wasn’t too far from our apartment on Viale Italia, in Livorno, and I passed it frequently on my way to the market. You could easily have walked right by without noticing but for the aromas that slipped beneath the door – apparitions of caramelized sugar and bittersweet cocoa. Though I didn’t often stop in to buy anything (willpower, you know), just knowing it was there was reassuring. I was quite homesick during that first winter abroad and everyone knows that a little chocolate is the best cure for homesickness. Peeking in the windows, I squinted, peering across the black and white tiled floor to the candies in the display case against the back wall. One morning there was a girl behind the counter arranging chocolates on silver trays. She must have been about seventeen, not too much younger than myself at the time. I assumed she was the daughter of the shopkeeper. As I watched through the window she must have felt my gaze upon her because she looked up at me so abruptly that I jumped. I smiled rather timidly, blushing at being discovered. It was then that I saw that the candies she was was displaying were chocolate covered oranges. It was early December, or possibly late November, I don’t quite remember now, but all my willpower crumbled. They reminded me of the chocolate oranges my parents always bought around Christmastime at home. I had to have some, and from then until the new year, and every year after, I stopped in at the shop once a week to buy a little bag of these treats. As sure a cure for homesickness as chocolate alone.
It’s funny how memories shift and soften over the years. Now, instead of reminding me of childhood Christmases, chocolate oranges make me think of those bleak but romantically charming early December mornings in Italy. They’re the little rays of sunshine that keep me going in the dark months.
Making candied oranges at home is really not as difficult as it may seem. The oranges are boiled in water to remove some of the bitterness and then boiled in a sugar syrup. After that, they sit at room temperature until dry. You don’t need a candy thermometer and any special equipment to make these. The hardest part, at least for me as an impatient cook, is waiting for them to dry. Instead of dipping the orange slices in chocolate, I like to eat them with little chocolate pots de crème, dipping the oranges as I go.
Candied oranges are great on their own, dredged in a little sugar. You could dip these in melted chocolate and let it harden, but I love to serve them with chocolate pots de crème. Cook the oranges in round slices because the peel will prevent them from falling apart. When ready to serve, cut each round orange slice in half.
1 large, organic navel orange
3/4 sugar, plus 2 TBSP
Slice the orange into 1/4 inch slices, discarding the ends. Place the orange slices in a medium sauce pan and cover with water. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse the oranges under cool, running water. Rinse the pan. Repeat this step by placing the oranges back in the pan, covering with fresh water and simmering again for another 10 minutes. Drain the oranges, rinse and set aside.
In the same pot, mix 3/4 cup sugar with 3/4 cup water and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Layer the orange slices evenly into the sugar syrup and simmer for 30 – 40 minutes. Carefully turn the oranges once or twice while cooking. When most of the water has evaporated and the syrup is very thick and bubbly, carefully transfer the orange slices to a cooling rack placed over a sheet pan. Let sit until cool to the touch.
Place 2 tablespoon of fine white sugar in a shallow bowl. When the oranges are cool but still a little sticky press them into the sugar to coat both sides. Place back on the rack and cover loosely with a sheet of parchment paper. Allow the oranges to sit at room temperature for 12 – 24 hours, until completely dry. Cut each orange slice in half and store in a covered container.
Pots de crème au chocolat
Chocolate and orange make such good friends. I flavour these little puddings with a bit of orange zest that’s strained out at the end. The result is a very rich and smooth custard. Place a slice of candied orange in each little cup just before serving. Dip the orange in the pudding as you’re eating – the crunch of the sugar, the bittersweetness of the orange, the depth of the chocolate – it all reminds me of my time in Italy.
4 oz. (113g) high quality semi-sweet chocolate (approx 60% cacao)
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
flaky sea salt, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 300 F (150 C). Place four custard cups or ramekins in a baking dish that is just large enough to hold them.
Stir the milk, cream and orange zest together in a small sauce pan. Place the pan over medium-low heat and slowly bring to a simmer, stirring frequently so the milk on the bottom doesn’t burn.
Meanwhile, chop the chocolate. When the milk just begins to simmer, remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate. Set aside for 3 – 5 minutes to let the chocolate melt and the orange zest infuse.
In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt until smooth.
Whisk the hot milk and chocolate mixture until very smooth and the chocolate has melted completely. Very slowly and carefully, pour the hot milk into the bowl with the egg yolks. Start with just a few tablespoons at a time, whisking constantly so as to not scramble the eggs. When all the milk has been incorporated, whisk the custard until smooth and uniform.
Strain the custard through a sieve and pour evenly into the four cups. Pour enough hot water into the baking dish to come about halfway up the cups. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 35 minutes, or until the custard is just barely set in the middle. (Note: if you live at high altitude, the custards could take as long as 50 minutes to cook.)
When the custards are just set, remove from the water and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Fall arrived like a ghost. A whisper in the night, a veil of silky coolness in the morning, quickly chased away by the midday sun leaving you to wonder was it real or was it just a mirage. You can feel her presence before seeing her. But there, at the very tops of the trees, on the tips of the flower petals, on the edges of a butterfly’s wings, a hint of amber a crinkle of gold, and you know the she is here, at last.
As much as I love puttering around in the kitchen, I find it difficult to stay in the house when the world outside is a wonderland of autumn colours. We live in such a magical location where in one moment you can find yourself amid the vivacity and electricity of a city of nearly a million, and in the next completely alone, deep in the forest, the folds of the mountain completely obscuring the city below.
The leaves change so early up there and I have a crazy sense of FOMO on their changing colours. These days we are in the mountains every chance we get, gradually watching the ghost of fall materialize right before our eyes.