Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Defense of Dessert
What’s Cooking? Candied Grapefruit Peel

It’s the season of the diet. But I love desserts. Yes, the Kitchen Goddess has a well-known sweet tooth. You know that moment at the end of a restaurant meal, that point when the waiter shows up, clasps his hands as if in prayer, and says, “Can I interest you in any dessert?” When that happens, and we are out to dinner with another couple or a group, I find increasingly that everyone turns and looks expectantly at me for the answer. What am I, the mom?

No, I think it’s that they rely on me to say, “Maybe we’ll have one [or two, depending on the number of people at the table] to share.” So they all get that  “little something” they like that punctuates the end of the meal and I get the blame for ordering it.

Between the diets and the crappy economy, many people these days think of dessert as the one part of the meal they can skip. But it turns out that dessert is a good thing for a number of reasons. First, as a tradition, dessert is offered in most cultures to signify the end of the meal and as a gesture of goodness. Second, after a meal that’s primarily salty and savory, the sweetness of dessert elevates one’s mood and completes the taste sensations one associates with a well-rounded meal. And finally, many traditional dessert ingredients are actually quite good for you. Dark chocolate is known to lower blood pressure; fruits have lots of vitamins and fiber; yogurt fortifies your immune system and helps with digestion; and nuts like almonds and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids that help lower cholesterol.

I think dessert has basically gotten a bad rap. The problem is that most restaurants serve Brobdingnagian proportions, and we’re all such Clean Plate Club members that it doesn’t occur to us to eat some, not all, of what shows up.

So when I serve dessert at my house, or when I take dessert for something like a New Year’s Eve dinner or just a neighborhood gathering to watch the Super Bowl playoffs, I try to offer a range – from the uber-sweet of a chocolate cake to a small nosh that can still satisfy that craving for “a little something” at the end of a meal. And that’s where candied grapefruit peel fits in perfectly.

It’s grapefruit season, especially here in Texas, and I love grapefruit, especially Texas red grapefruit. (N.B., red grapefruit is apparently especially good at reducing cholesterol.) When I buy grapefruit, nothing is wasted. I remove the peel (carefully), cut away the membranes, and eat those lovely sections of fruit with a sprinkling of sugar and either cinnamon or candied ginger. Then I make candied grapefruit peel, which I find absolutely addictive. My friends say, “What is this?” as they gobble it down. It takes a bit of a process, but you will not be sorry. Trust the Kitchen Goddess.

Candied Grapefruit Peel
Adapted from Gourmet magazine, December 2000

2 large grapefruits (I prefer the red varieties)
1 cup sugar
vegetable oil (or unflavored cooking spray, such as PAM)
superfine granulated sugar (also called caster sugar) for rolling the candied strips

Special equipment: a large baking rack that fits into (or on top of) a shallow baking pan.

With a paring knife, cut lengthwise slits in the peel to quarter it. Carefully separate the peel from the fruit. With a chef's knife, working at an angle on each piece of peel, cut strips ¼-inch to ⅓-inch wide. Trim away ragged bits of the white pith (just for looks), but don’t bother trying to remove all the white.

Put the strips into a large (3-quart) saucepan filled about two-thirds with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and continue to boil for another minute. Drain the strips and repeat the boiling process 4 more times. This process will drive you crazy but it removes the bitterness from the peel.

Add the cup of sugar to ½ cup of cold water in a large heavy skillet, and bring it to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the grapefruit strips to the skillet and simmer, stirring, until the strips have absorbed most of the syrup. This will take 10-15 minutes.

While the strips are cooking in the syrup, get that large baking rack in the shallow baking pan, and spray the rack with PAM or brush with vegetable oil. Once the grapefruit strips have absorbed the syrup, remove them one by one and lay them out on the oiled rack. You may want to keep the heat under the skillet on low so the syrup doesn’t harden while you’re arranging the strips on the rack.

Let the candied strips dry, uncovered, at least 8 hours or overnight. Once they are only slightly sticky, roll them (a few pieces at a time) in the superfine sugar, shaking off any excess. Let dry completely on wax paper or baker’s parchment. Dried peel keeps well in an airtight container at room temperature for at least a week.

Kitchen Goddess note: I sometimes find that the peel in the container will become moist and slightly sticky – after all, the strips aren’t completely dry. If that happens, just roll the strips in another round of superfine sugar and let them dry a bit more at room temperature.

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