Buttered Oranges

Buttered Oranges

For the past several years I have been making a searchable index of the digitised household books held at The Wellcome Library. In doing so, I’ve read over 300 manuscripts and logged more than 32,000 food and drink recipes and have a ‘To Do list of interesting recipes as long as my arm.

‘Buttering’ was exceedingly popular in times past, and was applied to numerous dishes: crab, chickens, rolls, loaves, turnips, rice, salmon… For the most part, this consists of a healthy slathering of butter over the dish in question. Buttered Oranges, however, stands apart, since it’s not a pairing that seems obvious. So it was that this year, in the midst of a Seville orange flurry of kitchen activity, I grabbed a net of sweet oranges and determined that Buttered Oranges would be promoted to the top of the To Do list with immediate effect.

Buttered Orange recipe
Buttered Orange recipe, circa 1750, MS1357, Wellcome Library Collection

I re-read all of the recipes from the collection that I could find, and they were all pretty similar. I selected this one because of the novel presentation suggestion, which is to serve the buttered oranges in candied orange peels. Completely optional, of course, but it does make for an eye-catching dessert.

Which hopefully makes up for what might possibly be a bit of a let-down, because it turns out that Buttered Oranges is pretty much what we today would call a fruit curd: juice and zest, sweetened and thickened with eggs with a generous, but not excessive, quantity of butter melted in.

After experimentation, I found the best way to present this dessert was to make each element separately and then assemble before serving. I felt the original recipe’s instruction to bake the filled oranges until set was a little too risky and prone to mishap to risk all the preparation, but don’t let that deter you from trying it for yourself – I would just advise against a spur of the moment decision during an important social occasion.

Preparing the peels

I chose blood oranges to serve the curd in, as they were a beautiful colour and relatively small, thus being perfect for serving elegant portions of this rich dessert.

1 orange per person
1kg caster sugar
1 litre water

Before you start, you should make a decision on how you will be preparing the peels. The original recipe says to zest the oranges, slice off the top, hollow out the flesh, then simmer in water until tender, then finish in syrup. This gives the skins a pale, almost pastel colouring, which is delightful, and means the whole of the orange is put to good use but also makes them rather fragile during the cooking. One solution would be to tie them lightly in muslin or cheesecloth, to protect them, or alternately, use un-zested oranges, which will have a darker colour, but are also much more robust and less likely to split during the cooking. The results of both are illustrated in the photograph at the top, the zested peels on the right, the un-zested on the left. If you choose to use un-zested oranges, then you will need twice as many oranges overall.

  • If you’re zesting the oranges, do that now and reserve the zest for later.
  • Slice a lid off the top of each orange, and scoop out the insides using a combination of sharp knife and teaspoon. Reserve the flesh and juice for later.
  • Make sure there’s no orange flesh or fibres left inside.
  • Place the hollowed oranges and their lids into a saucepan of cold water, making sure the water fills the cavities.
  • Slowly bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer until tender. This will take about 1.5-2 hours.
  • Change the water and scrub the pan every 30 minutes to remove the bitter oil.
  • When the peels are tender enough to be pierced by a toothpick, make a syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water over a low heat.
  • Add the peels and allow to simmer gently until the peel appears translucent.
  • Remove from the heat. The peels can remain in the syrup until required.

Buttered Oranges

As already mentioned, this is a variation of Orange Curd, so if you already have a favourite recipe, then by all means use that instead.

2 large eggs
the zest and juice from at least 4 oranges
the juice of 1 lemon
Sugar to taste
50g unsalted butter

  • Add the strained juices and zest to the eggs and whisk thoroughly.
  • Add the butter and whisk over a gentle heat until thickened.
  • Add sugar to taste.
  • To serve, you can either pour the curd into your oranges warm, or fill them and allow them to cool before serving.
  • I recommend serving some kind of biscuit or shortbread alongside to dip!

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