When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, our family’s favorite Chinese restaurant was the Chi-Am Chateau, a kitschy homage to the best in Americanized Chinese food, or what we then thought of as Chinese food. Though it was some fifty (!) years ago, I still recall the dessert served at the end of those family-style meals – lovingly parsed-out portions of tiny kumquats in syrup, the ultimate in exoticism and luxury at the time. Little did I realize then that nearly every better grocery store in town stocked jars of this sweet / tart fruit in syrup. Not so exotic after all. What’s more, I’m sure it never occurred to me that these fruits started out fresh, picked from a tree somewhere far away, perhaps in California (though their origins and cultivation are recorded as early as 12th Century China). Even nowadays, they appear in farmers’ markets and on produce shelves fleetingly, it seems.
Taking advantage of that moment, which starts about now, I like to create a conserve to serve on freshly baked scones or toasted English muffins – any-time-of-day snacks that in my winding-down time after work beg for a great cup of properly brewed tea. For my version of this jam, I brew up a batch of a favorite tea, usually a muscatel-style Darjeeling, and slowly cook the seeded kumquats in a sugar syrup diluted with the tea until they become tender, but are not falling apart. You might also choose to honor the fruit’s heritage by pairing it with a Chinese tea instead of a Darjeeling. Whether you use the most often cultivated oval Marumi or Nagami varieties or the slightly rarer and sweeter round and often seedless Meiwa variety, when you make this conserve, you will find that the balanced sweet / tart flavor of the fruit remains vibrant, even in cooked form. What’s interesting about the kumquat is that it has its sweet and tart parts reversed: the skin is sweet and what’s inside is usually quite tart or even astringent, the opposite of most other citrus fruits.
Reward yourself with a favorite cuppa upon completing the somewhat tedious process of removing the seeds from the tiny fruits. Personally, I find this task meditative and relaxing.
Yield: 3 pint jars
1 lb. seeded kumquats (start with approximately 20-22 ounces of fruit to yield 16 ounces net, after seeding)
1 lb. (generous 2 cups) granulated sugar
Note: If using the sweeter Meiwa variety, you might reduce the sugar amount to 10-12 ounces (1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cups)
2 cups brewed Indian tea (use 10 grams of tea leaf in 2 cups of water, infused for about 4 minutes, or until the maximum flavor is extracted, before turning tannic)
Simply place the kumquats, sugar, and brewed tea into a heavy 3-quart saucepan. Over a high heat, stirring initially, bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. Reduce the heat to medium, skimming off the foam that rises to the surface of the mixture. Continue to cook until the fruit is tender (this can take 20 to 30 minutes) and the syrup is thickened to a coating consistency. Do not burn or allow the mixture to caramelize. Test the thickness of the conserve by dropping a small spoonful of it into a glass of ice water.
When it is cooled, remove the droplets from the ice water, and rub between your thumb and forefinger to check that they hold a soft shape (this would be considered the softball stage of sugar cooking, about 240-242 degrees F.) If the conserve seems too thin, continue cooking, stirring frequently, and checking every 5 minutes or so to confirm the consistency by using the ice water bath test.
When done, transfer to glass jars with tight-fitting lids, cover, and allow to cool to room temperature. When cool, refrigerate for storage. This conserve should last for a few months in the refrigerator, but far longer than you will need it to, if like me, you become addicted to this seasonal specialty and eat it by the tablespoonful. Great also as a condiment with roast duck, pork, or even chicken.