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Candied Peel

I love love love candied peel. I used to run to the baking cupboard and cram spoonfuls of it in my mouth when my mum wasn’t looking. It was my favourite bit of any fruitcake or barmbrack. This is especially odd since I don’t like oranges as a fruit, juice or flavouring, and generally eschew citrus fruits of all kinds. But mellow those citrus rinds in vats of sugar and it’s hypnotic to me.

An inability to read recipes a few weeks ago meant I ended up with an overabundance of grapefruits when making marmalade for cake and found myself wondering what to do with them all. A casual Twitter conversation about Christmas preparations brought about a massive lightbulb moment. I would make my own candied peel. Never mind if it was incredibly faffy and complicated: I could rise to the challenge!

Imagine my glee when this Waitrose recipe popped up and I realised candying my own peel was actually easier than pie. Radio on, sleeves rolled up, I set about peeling and de-pithing my citrus fruit. I had a mix of pomelo, ruby grapefruit, lemons and orange, but avoided limes as I thought it might be too overwhelming, like cordial.

Get four pans going on your hob and simmer the peels separately in hot water for about 20 minutes to soften them up. Then split the peels into two pots to simmer in the syrup. I actually made two batches of candied peel and found it easier to keep the peels bigger and cram less peel into the pans as they bubble and soak up the sugar. I just did two batches of the syrup to be sure nothing caught or burned. Keep the heat down low as you can, you only want the merest blip in the syrup to stop it getting bitter or caramelising. Then go off and do stuff while your house smells truly amazing…

I came back to my peel when there was still a tiny bit of syrup left, and lifted the biggest pieces out with tongs, laying them on baking trays. The smaller bits went into a sieve to drip any excess syrup off, as you don’t want so much syrup on the pieces: they dry crunchy and I didn’t fancy trying to boil my pan dry and win the challenge. I then left the trayfuls of peel in the living room to dry as it was the only place I had room, but the airing cupboard or anywhere the cat can’t walk on them will do.

About three days later, I turned the peel with tongs and left for another two or three days or until I remembered about it. I popped it in a ziplock bag, with a tablespoon or so of icing sugar, and shook it up to coat it and stop it sticking together. Some went into the Christmas mincemeat. Some went into cellophane bags to give as gifts. The rest was stored in a jar to be used for various festive recipes closer to the time and the leftover syrup stored for a drizzle cake or put on porridge or ice cream.

So if you didn’t do a cake on Stir-Up Sunday, impress people with homemade candied peel instead. You will never buy one of those tiny tubs again after you’ve tasted the citrus sensation of making your own. It tastes as good as it looks!

Salted Vanilla Toffee Apples

Halloween is a big deal in Ireland. We don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night (for obvious reasons in Northern Ireland) but the Irish have been holding a celebration around this time since Celtic times when Samhain was the equivalent of New Year. The date merged with the Christian All Souls Day and All Hallows’ Eve to become Halloween. Traditionally the time when the link between the world of the living and the dead was closest, it is a time of supernatural feeling and rememberance of those passed on. Irish and Scottish emigrants to America took the traditional Halloween customs with them and those have been exported back across the Atlantic to the less spooky-minded folk of England in recent times.

As kids growing up in Belfast, Halloween was a big deal. Half term always fell around this time and we were off school to celebrate with a variety of traditions from a turnip lantern and full on costumes, trick or treating, apple bobbing, indoor fireworks (anything more explosive was banned) and a rich array of seasonal foods. Our mum made her legendary apple dumpling most years, steamed in a cloth, complete with silver coins for luck and it was also the time of year for barmbrack. But we also got in another one of our five a day with a toffee apple or two.

Wrapped in cellophane, these twinkled and crinkled in the run up to the big night and produced a fantastic crunch when we were finally allowed them. Sharp shattering toffee, softened but crunchy apple and a burst of tangy juice, these got eaten faster than any other apple in the year. These are the taste of childhood to me and I haven’t eaten one for years. Could I make them a touch more adult while keeping the memories?

One of my favourite things I’ve made all year was the Salted Caramel Butter Ice-Cream and thinking back on it inspired me to add a salted twist to toffee apples. It was the perfect time to use the Halen Môn Vanilla Sea Salt I’ve been hoarding for a while and make them salt sweet perfection. I got some lolly sticks off Ebay and stocked up on English apples at Brixton Farmers’ Market. I was ready to heat sugar to scary temperatures…

First up, scald your apples with just boiled water to take off any waxy coating they might have. Dry them completely and push the sticks into them firmly. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and heat in a small pan:

225g golden granulated sugar
about a heaped tablespoon golden syrup
1 tsp vinegar (I used cider)
1 tsp sea salt
50ml water

Melt everything, bring to the boil and then get it all to the hard crack stage or approximately 150C. A sugar thermometer is a godsend here to make sure you don’t go over. Take the pan off the heat directly at this point and add in some red food colouring to get that proper candy apple red. I used a teaspoon of powdered colouring and I’d hazard a guess at the same of liquid. Natural isn’t the look we’re going for.

Keep the toffee molten and very liquid, putting back on a low or residual heat if needs be. Tilt the pan to one side to get the toffee as deep as possible and roll your apple in it, coating as high up as you can. Allow the excess the drip off into the pan and then set on the lined tray. Repeat until you run out of toffee. I got 6 small apples out of this, but probably could have done 8. Dollop any leftovers onto a tray to set like toffee and cover with chocolate or make spun sugar baskets or add a dash of bicarb for a cinder toffee-esque treat.

The toffee will set almost instantly on the apples and on the pan. Fill it with water and bring to the boil to save hours of soaking and scrubbing. Admire your handiwork and feel smug that you have not burnt yourself or the sugar. Then get stuck into a toffee apple as soon as possible.

They tasted exactly as I wanted. The flavour and feel of childhood but with a tiny tinge of adulthood from the salt. There was just a hint of vanilla, almost like a waft, rather than a flavour. You could add essence if you wanted a more defined taste. I scarfed mine in the same record speed as I used to, revelling in the soft apple and the shimmering crunchy toffee. I wrapped the remaining ones in cellophane and hoped fervently that no one called to trick or treat so I could eat the lot…