Oranges with their round shape, scarlet-gold color, and sweet flavor are the canonical fruit of China. They are placed on every altar, however humble or grand, and are regularly profferred up at the conclusion of a Chinese meal, typically sectioned into eighths and fanned out on a platter like a giant russet chrysanthemum. To be truthful, I grew quite sick of them in Taiwan and found myself wishing they could be “dressed up” a bit.
Wash the oranges. With a vegetable peeler, remove the peel from 4 of them (or all 6 if you’re a fan of glacéed peel and would like to have extra). Work carefully so you take off only the minimum amount of white pith and aim for broad, long strips.
Put the peel orange side down and cut or scrape away any trace of white pith, then cut the peel into long julienne strips 1/16 inch thin.
Bring water to cover to boil in a small saucepan and simmer the peel 12–15 minutes to make it tender and less bitter. Drain, rush under cold water to stop the cooking, and set aside to drain.
Put ⅓ cup water and the sugar in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil over moderately high heat, swirling the pot gently until the mixture is 100 percent clear, indicating the sugar has dissolved. Cover the pot, then let the mixture boil for 1 minute while the steam washes the sugar crystals from the side of the pot. Remove the cover, wait about 30 seconds for the bubbles to thicken, then add the peel to the syrup. Swirl gently to coat the threads and boil 1–2 minutes until the syrup thickens slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool. The peel will turn a beautifully translucent red-gold. The syrup should be light, not thick and sticky. If you have overdone the boiling and let too much of the water evaporate, simply stir a bit of water into the mixture if it is still very hot. Otherwise, return the pot to the stove and stir in water to thin the syrup over a low heat.
Use your fingernails and/or a small, sharp knife to remove all the white pith from the oranges, including the white, branch-like veins along the side of each segment. The end result will be prettiest if you can do this without slicing through the translucent membrane that surrounds each segment, though if you’re in a hurry or less patient you can do a speedy job by slicing off the pith and the membrane in one swoop.
Lay each orange on its side, slice off the ends, then cut the remainder into even round slices about ⅜ inch thick. Using a tweezer or the point of a small knife, remove any seeds and white pith from the center of each slice, taking care to keep the slices whole. Put a layer of slices side by side in a broad, shallow bowl (either the serving bowl or a big glass pie plate). Using your fingers, smooth a thin film of liqueur over the top of each slice, then scatter a bit of peel on top of that, taking only that syrup which clings to the peel. Continue to build the layers of orange, smear them with liqueur, and scatter peel on top until you’ve used up all the oranges and dressed the top layer with a pretty crown of peel. Squeeze the juice from the end slices over the dessert, using cheesecloth or a sieve to trap any seeds or pulp, then discard the pulp. Taste the combined liquids in the bowl and add a bit more syrup if you like a sweeter taste.
Seal airtight and refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving. While chilling, use a clean bulb-top baster or spoon to occasionally ladle the juices in the bowl over the top of the dessert.
Serve chilled in a large serving bowl of contrasting color or arranged on individual chilled plates, topped by a bit of juice and a tangle of peel, and accompanied by a cookie.
The oranges keep perfectly for about a week in the refrigerator, sealed airtight. Leftover peel and syrup may be refrigerated indefinitely and are delicious on ice creams or in compotes of dried and fresh fruit.
The oranges are a particularly welcome ending to meals of richer foods like Smoked Tea Duck, Fragrant Crispy Duck, or Master Sauce Chicken. They are also very good with mildly seasoned pork dishes, like Pearl Balls or Golden Egg Dumplings. Given a fancier menu, this is a wonderful dessert to serve alongside a rich French Sauterne. The effect is a lovely balance of sharp orange and sweet liqueur.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.