Once Christmas and New Year have passed, I find myself blinking bemusedly into the expanse of January, feeling as bleak as the winter sunlight. The festivities are over, trees stripped of their twinkling lights, and everyone turns grimly to New Year resolutions, those puritanical punishments for the sins of excess.
It is a rude transition, this movement from merriment to austerity, celebration to regimen. And so I try to ease the shift, wind down the feasting with one final toast to the baby Jesus, one last excuse for a party. Conveniently, Epiphany, that much ignored feast of the three kings on January 6th, provides the perfect justification for a last culinary flourish. It also happens to be my half birthday, and although it is generally considered excessive to celebrate such a dubious occasion beyond the age of about eight, I don’t care.
This year I decided to bake a King’s cake to commemorate the occasion. Traditional versions are found in many places, from France to New Orleans to Mexico and back across the Atlantic to Spain. There is the Gallic gâteau des rois, a flaky pastry filled with thick almond paste, or the round Spanish brioche-like roscón de reyes decorated with candied fruit, or the frankly garish Louisiana king’s cake, heavy with colorful and sickly icing.
Not tempted by any of these, I decided to substitute a sweet I’ve long wished to make, that towering, regal Milanese pastry known as panaton, or panettone. The basic requirements for an Epiphany cake are simple: it must be round, in homage to a king’s crown, and it must contain a bean, or coin, or figurine—something inedible and symbolic of the baby Jesus. Traditions vary, but generally the one who finds the trinket in his or her portion of cake becomes king or queen for the day, with the bossing rights this implies. Panettone, in all its corpulent, fruit-flecked glory, seems ideal for the occasion. It is ample, fragrant, and flashy—an exceedingly Italian confection and in my opinion an auspicious way to begin the new year.
In preparation for the panettone, I first needed to make candied lemon and orange peel. It is possible to buy this, but I was curious about the process and, since many bakers loudly despise store-bought peel, I wanted to see if the homemade stuff is worth the effort.
The verdict? Homemade peel not only contains a depth and intensity of flavor far superior to the commercial product, it is also easy and lusciously beautiful to prepare.
For a couple cups of finished candied peel you will need:
about 2 lemons and 2 oranges (or 2 lemons, 1orange, and 1 grapefruit)
4 cups sugar
4 cups water
Wash and dry the fruit. Using a sharp paring knife, cut through the skin (but not the flesh) and around the fruit, marking it into six evenly sized sections. Carefully pull the sections of peel off the flesh and save the latter for something else. Use your paring knife to cut away the soft, excess pith from the skin.
Submerge the skin in a pot of cold water, bring to the boil and then drain. Repeat twice. Heat 4 cups of water with 4 cups of sugar in a large, heavy-based saucepan and boil until sugar has dissolved. Add the peel, reduce to a simmer, and cook for about an hour, until the peel is bright and translucent.
Turn off heat and allow peel to cool a little. Then, using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove the peel from the syrup and lay on a wire rack to cool completely. Finally, roll the peel in sugar and store in a jar for later use.
Candied peel is essential for many Christmas or other wintry sweets including mince pies, fruit cake, German stollen and of course panettone. It can also be used to enliven fruit buns, to decorate cakes, or dipped in chocolate and eaten on its own as a luxurious treat.