You might start seeing weird little oranges popping up in the grocery stores and produce markets with labels like “sour oranges”, “Seville oranges”, or even “bitter oranges”. You might wonder to yourself what these might be for, or who would want sour or even bitter oranges.
You do. Get them.
Get a lot of them.
Buy them all.
And then buy some more for me. Please. I’m good for it.
Sour oranges are in season usually somewhere between November and February at some point, with some being grown in Florida, parts of the Caribbean and, probably most renowned, Spain (hence their “Seville orange” moniker). They’re not the prettiest citrus you’ve ever seen—where most of its family members found at our local grocery stores are smooth skinned and high glossed, these are bumpy, uneven, and almost matte-finished—but it’s what’s inside that counts. They’re like nothing you’ve ever tasted. Their juice gives you no room to wonder where the name “sour orange” comes from—it’s the pure, clean taste of an orange, but replace all the sweetness you would usually expect with absolute sourness. Think the sourness of a lime, amplified. The peel is something else all together. In addition to the perfume of a sweet orange rind, it has an almost spiced quality with floral notes reminiscent of lavender.
Before I had ever tasted a sour orange on its own I read that, this Lavender Connection, and thought it strange, almost unbelievable—like the review or vignette of some wine or other foodstuff written by a highfalutin critic, identifying flavor profiles so obscure that you deem them as either completely mad or totally genius, and cause you to wonder just how lazy your taste buds really are—but it’s true. It was nothing intense or soapy by any stretch, but the floral aroma of dried lavender, soft and herbaceous, was palatable. But I don’t want to harp. Moreover, it has a phenomenal orange taste. Just think marmalade—the most common use for these, by far, is to make marmalade.
But these diamonds in the rough deserve more than just the standard treatment of being jellied, and since I’ve been on a bit of a crème brûlée kick lately the choice was obvious. It really is the perfect vehicle for something like this; with such a lip-puckering sourness it needs something sweet to balance it, not to mention some richness to give it a little depth. Then there’s the caramelized and crackly top, a little rough like the fruit’s skin, smoky and sweet with a touch of bitterness from the darker spots that verge on burnt.
It’s almost as though Fate decided long ago that the pomelo and mandarin should meet (they’d make a great couple and they have so much in common) because one day some French genius is going to concoct a baked custard, luxuriously creamy but still light as air, with a layer of burnished and bronzed sugar atop, so the fruit of the of those citruses’ lineage (get it?) would one day find each other. Then, oh then, it would be culinary nirvana.
Crème brûlée can seem intimidating, but don’t go there. It’s incredibly simple so, as most things that rely so heavily on their simplicity, everything has to be just so. I’ve tried a lot of crème brûlée recipes over the years and most of them turn out either like pudding—too dense—or like a classic baked custard—too eggy and “snappy”. This, if I may say so, is the perfect crème brûlée recipe. Loosely based on the classic recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, it has what some might consider a ridiculous amount of egg yolks, but they’re absolutely necessary. Trust me. A low baking temperature, adequate time to cool down, and a sprinkling of turbinado sugar over the top that you take a blow torch to and you’ve got a new classic.
The seasonality of sour oranges makes their presence fleeting for sure*, and while it’s sad to see them come and go so quickly their brief appearance only reinforces how special they truly are. So don’t waste any time; revel in them while you can, and even overindulge, to carry you through your next encounter.
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* The grated rind, squeezed juice, and even whole fruit itself freeze beautifully. Juice should be strained, rind frozen in a single layer on a parchment or plastic wrap-lined sheet pan (or similar), and whole oranges double wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and then in a layer of heavy duty aluminum foil.