Candying the Buddha’s Hand ~ out of the bottle

candied buddha's hand

Surely the fact that peak citrus season falls smack in the middle of winter is a sign the cosmos is not entirely without mercy. Just when we’ve thrown away our holiday trappings, the supermarkets brim with flashes of color. Even the humblest corner bodega has good oranges right now. My amazing local grocery store is having its annual citrus festival, and the produce section is crammed with so many exotic varieties that I brought my camera with me on my last shopping trip.

The fruit was piled high in fragrant chaos — pale chartreuse pomelos the size of melons nestled alongside orange-red kishu tangerines no bigger than a kiss. White, pink, red and yellow grapefruits kept company with a dozen different varieties of oranges, including sour Seville oranges begging to be roasted with duck, and blood oranges with their deep maroon flesh and Cara Cara oranges that are supposed to taste of raspberries but tasted, to me, exactly like a sweet-sour Pixie Stick. Not only were there kumquats (and I ask you, is there a more adorable fruit than the kumquat?) there were limequats and mandarinquats (which I keep wanting to call manquats, though I can see why they didn’t). There were real live bergamots, round as cue balls, and wrinkled, deflated yuzus, both of them smelling — when I dragged a nail across their peels — twice as heavenly as all the teas and candies and perfumes that feature them.

mixed citrus

And most importantly, my scent-loving friends, there were citrons.

The citron, also known as the cedrat (in France), or the kou-yuan (in China), and in classical times as the Persian or Citrus Apple, is a large citrus fruit found in the Mediterranean, Puerto Rico and throughout south and central Asia. While a few varieties are prized for their juice, most have little pulp — the peel’s the thing, candied or in preserves. But for our purposes, and that of people wherever they are grown, the point of a citron is that a ripe one can fill a room with its scent.

buddha's hand

My market featured two varieties: the Etrog, traditionally used in the the Jewish Sukkot ceremony, which looks like a bumpy, bright yellow child-sized football (if left on the tree they will continue to grow for years until they break the branch), and the Fingered Citron, or Buddha’s Hand, which looks like an enormous lemon crossed with an alien octopus and wins my prize for Most Psychedelic Fruit until something crazier comes along. Naturally, I bought two of them.

Buddha’s Hands, as their name suggests, are often placed on temple altars as fragrant offerings. I put one on the shelf in my study that I keep for my own version of such a thing, and one at the head of our bed. I was skeptical at first — I couldn’t smell much when I brought my nose directly to the fruit. But sure enough, after a few days the fruits perfumed the air with a rich but delicate scent that appeared and disappeared, catching me deliciously off guard as I walked through the room or fluffed up my pillow in the middle of the night.

Perfumer Ayala Sender, who has been writing on her blog about her efforts to create an Etrog perfume describes the scent as resembling pineapple and flowers. To my nose, they smell like a rounder, deeper version of my beloved Meyer lemons, somewhere between lemons and apricots with a floral quality reminiscent of osmanthus. Sweet but ethereal, it is a perfect scent for reading, writing or drifting off to sleep.

After a few weeks, one of the Buddha’s Hands began showing some brown spots, so I decided to preserve their scent by candying them. When I began writing this post, I looked up several recipes for candying fruit and realized that I had inadvertently followed none of them. Both the recipe Victoria Frolova of Bois de Jasmin recently posted for candied orange peels and food blogger David Lebovitz’s citron-specific recipe call for boiling the fruit to reduce bitterness before a long simmer/soak in sugar syrup. I skipped the boiling step, thinking that I was following Fany Gerson’s recipe for candied fruits in (the totally amazing) My Sweet Mexico, only to find, upon looking again, that she calls for an overnight soaking in water dosed with calcium oxide. They all used a different ratio of water to sugar, too. Probably, you should follow one of those recipes instead. But here’s what I did:

Candied Buddha’s Hand The Lazy and Ever So Slightly Bitter Way

Slice the Buddha’s Hand citron, peel and all, into long strips, as though for orangettes. Don’t worry if the pieces are different sizes or if some are all white pith. Stare at the pile you’ve made and decide how much simple syrup you’ll need to generously accommodate all the strips, remembering that it will boil down considerably. I made a ridiculous twelve cups for approximately two cups of strips. Six is probably more than enough. (You can always make more.) So. Put three cups of sugar and three cups of water in a large pot and boil until the sugar is completely dissolved and the liquid is clear.

Turn heat down to low simmer and add citron strips. Simmer gently until the strips begin to look translucent, about an hour or two. Revel in the warm scent of preserved citron as it fills your entire house. Turn heat off and let soak overnight sitting on the stove top. In the morning, or whenever you have time (they can soak for days without harm) turn the burner back on and bring to a simmer for another hour, or whenever you remember to check it. Hold up a strip to the light and admire how it sparkles like stained glass.

candied citrus peel on drying rack

Reserving the syrup, set strips to dry on a cookie rack set over a tray lined in parchment or waxed paper for twenty-four hours or as long as it takes. Austin is very humid, so I found it helpful to put them in the oven with the light on. Toss with superfine sugar and store in airtight container. Lovely eaten as is or chopped and added to yogurt, morning oatmeal, your favorite muffin recipe etc.

The reserved syrup is delicious, highly fragrant and a gorgeous topaz color. Wonderful as homemade soda in sparkling water, as an ingredient in cocktails, marinades and salad dressings and completely amazing as a sweetener for good black tea.

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30 Comments

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  1. Marjorie Rose says:

    My goodness, Alyssa! You’re reading my mind today! I was just about to set out and candy some orange peels. I had done this for holiday entertaining, and they were so good, I have decided I want more around to nibble on. My store doesn’t have citron, but maybe I’ll have to take a trip to the local Asian market and see what they have. :)

    Oh, I put mine in my Nesco food dehydrator. It wasn’t part of the recipe I had followed, but here in rainy Oregon, I’m not sure they’d ever really dry without some assistance.

    • Alyssa says:

      Argh. Tech fail. Please seem my answer below. ;-)

  2. Alyssa says:

    Good call on the dehydrator! And the Asian market, too. I didn’t expect mine to dry properly, but after I left the oven light on they became nicely stiff and only slightly tacky to the touch. The final sugaring took care of the rest–it absorbs moisture as well as providing a nice textural contrast.

    I have the candying bug now–made another batch with the kumquats and their cousins and ended up with the most beautiful deep red-orange syrup. It’s a little ridiculous because I’m far more interested in making this stuff than in eating it (I love the smell, the process, watching the fruit transform) so I give it all away, but it seems to make people happy!

    • Marjorie Rose says:

      I know exactly what you mean about loving the process! My home smells like the freshest, juiciest oranges right now! It almost inspires me to vacuum so the house will match the clean smell, ha!

  3. Rappleyea says:

    This was fascinating! I’ve never heard of Buddha’s Hands citrons and now I’m dying to find them. Thanks so much, Alyssa. :-)

    • Alyssa says:

      Let me know if you find them in your area! As the commenter above noted, Asian markets are a good bet. Mine were $6 a piece, which I thought was pretty spendy until I read Ayala’s blog–hers were $40!

      • nozknoz says:

        I think the ones I’ve seen in my neighborhood supermarket were $8.

    • hardlyworking says:

      I agree- great article. Thanks Alyssa!

    • 50_Roses says:

      I saw the trees being sold in one of the nurseries around here, and considered planting one, but the cold hardiness is apparently quite poor, even for citrus, so I bought a Clementine instead to keep my Meyer lemon company. I have candied some of the lemon peel and I used it in the stollen I bake at Christmas. We don’t have so many varieties of citrus in any of our grocery stores here; kumquats are about as exotic as it gets, and those only appear briefly.

      • Alyssa says:

        It’s ironic that your stores don’t carry the exotic varieties since I’m pretty sure you’re closer to the groves than I am. Ah well.

        Last year I sliced some of my Meyers and candied the whole slice. They were beautiful and delicious.

  4. nancyg says:

    Thanks for the inspiration, Alyssa. I candy grapefruit peel every year – now I have an excuse to try something different – and an excuse to buy some Buddha’s Hands.I always use Mrs. Rombaur’s (Joy of Cooking) method : boil 5 times, then boil in syrup 2:1 sugar/water ratio. This year I made pomander balls while the peel boiled. The kitchen smelled wonderful.

    • Alyssa says:

      Oh that sounds lovely. I want to try grapefruit next, especially those sweet, sweet pink Rio Grande ones we get here that we eat out of hand like giant tangerines. And I think for most graperfuit all that repeated boiling is probably warranted since they can be so bitter. With the citron and some of the more delicate-skinned citrus varieties I’m not sure anything would be left after five boilings. But Mrs. Rombauer is nothing if not thorough!

      • 50_Roses says:

        With the Meyer lemon peel, I boiled just once before cooking in the sugar syrup and it may have been almost too much. The peel didn’t’ disintegrate, but it was quite soft. Next time I’ll probably skip the initial boiling and just cook in the sugar syrup.

        • Alyssa says:

          Yes, when I did my Meyer I just put it straight in the syrup and there was no bitterness at all.

  5. nozknoz says:

    THANK YOU, Alyssa! I’ve been seeing these in my neighborhood supermarket for the last two or three years – very intriguing but also expensive, so I couldn’t quite see putting it the cart without any idea what to do with it. NOW I’m ready – I love candied citrus peel!

    • nozknoz says:

      I forgot to say, great pictures, too!

      • Marjorie Rose says:

        Yes, I was appreciating them, too!

        • Alyssa says:

          Thank you ladies! I’m quite proud of the red plate one, myself. Finally figuring out how to work my darn camera.

    • Alyssa says:

      If you think of it as a combination fancy candle/future delicious candy the price starts to make a little more sense. They truly do “perfume the room” as it says on the little tag attached to them…

  6. breathesgelatin says:

    chalk me up as one perfumista who has little interest in fine food or the foodie movement. I like cooking to some extent – and I make a damn good casserole – but I don’t often visit Central Market. Although, they’re building a Whole Foods basically across the street from me in North Austin, so maybe I’ll go to a “fancy grocery store” more often in the future.

    That aside, I do find crazy fruits interesting and maybe it’s worth a trip to check some of these babies out. I especially would love to smell a real live Yuzu. Etrog must be a new perfume trend – I believe one of the perfumes from the new Arquiste line is Etrog-inspired, too.

    • KateReed says:

      I’ll start by echoing everyone else, Alyssa and saying great piece and beautiful pics. And very nicely timely too, I’m about as sick of apples and pears as I can get!

      To Breahes, though, just a little tip…if you ever see anything funky or unusual while shopping (or even just something you’re mildly curious about, like black garlic,) The Cook’s Thesaurus is a great site to have in the favorites on your phone (assuming, of course, that you have web on your cell.) They don’t have everything, but there is a great deal of basic info on many of the different foods that are starting to show up more commonly everywhere. In most cases they have substitutes listed as well, and in many (most notably the dairy and vegetarian sections) they also have techniques and recipes or links to other sites with them to make your own. It’s well worth a look.

      • Alyssa says:

        Oooh, Kate, that sounds great. I’ll have to check it out!

    • Alyssa says:

      Have fun sniffing the yuzus and don’t skip the bergamots! They are amazing, too.

  7. Tama says:

    Oh, yay! I was in Berkeley Bowl the other day and saw some Buddha’s Hands and really wanted to get a couple but had no idea what to do with them. You have inspired me to pick a couple up next time I go. You are very adventurous to go at that without looking it up FIRST. xox

    • Alyssa says:

      Ha! I admit it said I could candy it right there on the sign in the store. But I’d also been wanting to buy one of those crazy things for several years. NST gave me the excuse I needed!

      • Tama says:

        I got a couple – at a mere $4.69 a pound! I hope to come home tonight to a bit of that yummy scent in my house.

  8. laurag says:

    Hello, not only am I visiting Houston next month, but I’m headed to Dallas this weekend! Would love for anyone to share their shopping experience for perfume in the big D. I would prefer the niche lines and something new since I am but all sniffed out in the department stores. Is Barneys in Dallas comparable to the one in NYC? Frederick Malle, Le Labo, etc would be a great start. I am one crazy lady for perfume and once I find a place to shop I could be there for hours. A sweet lady in Houston helped me out with her city, Now I’m waiting to hear about Dallas. Waiting in Austin ( we have slim picking)

    • Alyssa says:

      Hi Laura. I’ve never been Dallas (!) so hopefully someone else will chime in, but yes, I’ve heard the Barneys up there has a full line of stuff. There’s also a smaller store, not in Dallas proper but a close by suburb–dang it, what is the name of that place. I’ll stop by later if I remember.

  9. Haunani says:

    I loved your article and photos, Alyssa! What a market you have, too, you lucky gal!

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