Dried citrus slices and cinnamon sticks, star anise can create hundreds of unique possibilities for ornaments and garlands. Picture: iStock
Dried citrus fruit is a seasonal classic as heritage tree ornaments, for stringing together garlands and for putting fruity pop on your wreaths indoors or out. With just a few clippings of evergreen from the garden, some taper candles and dried citrus fruit — your table centre will not only look utterly gorgeous, but the scent will be divine too. Iml Paper
Popcorn and fruit were the go-to materials for a Victorian Christmas, so cut down on the glitterati with some nostalgic, homemade effort. Everything from peaches to strawberries can be dried when you get the hang of the process, providing both healthy snacks and eye-catching, sustainable decor pieces for the whole year.
Drying citrus appears like a yuletide doddle, but an ancient process, it takes a little patience and practice to get right. In hot countries, the power of the sun and a fly net, is all you need, but we generally use a hot oven. Yes, you can deploy the microwave, but it’s a complex business involving acres of kitchen paper with frustrating, inconsistent results.
A dedicated, multi-shelf dehydrator will cost €150 or more but is worth consideration for creating nutrient-dense snacks including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meat (in the form of jerky), mushrooms and even herbs. Dehydrators tend to get slipped to the back of the gadget drawer — make sure you’re really dedicated to using one year-round.
Whatever process you decide on, if you leave too much moisture in any fruit, it will remain flabby and will nurture mould in a warm room. To preserve citrus (and even apples) we must get as much juice out of the slices as possible.
First, select nice firm fruits with no damage or bruising which can impact the flesh and final finish. Wash your chosen orange/lemons/limes (we don’t want any lingering chemistry or waxes) and dry them before cutting into even, slender slices with a sharp knife across the fruit.
Around half a centimetre is about right but you can go thicker, they just take longer to dry out. The peel is left on. Blood oranges are a bit pricey, but the ruddy interior has a truly dramatic colour. Use a wood cutting board for a clean cut, laying each fruit slice onto a double layer of kitchen paper as you work.
If you want to venture into drying pears and apples, a little lemon juice will stop them from browning completely. Use a mandolin to get the slices paper thin. Sprinkle with lemon and let it absorb before patting the surfaces dry. Put another layer of paper over the top and press lightly with your palms to absorb as much moisture as possible.
If you want to try drying whole fruits, like clementines, use a skewer to make a hole in the centre of the fruit before cooking (to hang later) and make vertical slashes in the skin like little fins that don’t cut into the top or bottom, to allow the fruit to release its juices.
So, let’s presume we are using the oven. Every model of cooker is different, so you may need to experiment to get the drying period right. Preheat to a very low setting of about 100C. Set the slices out on a wire rack rather than a baking tray (this allows the heat to circulate best).
If you prefer to line a solid metal tray, use baker’s parchment rather than foil. Pop the tray of slices into the centre of the oven and leave them for around two hours. Whole fruits take longer to dry— let them sit out on a radiator to finish.
This is a relatively long time to use your electric oven with energy prices soaring. Don’t go any hotter as it will cook and burn the fruit rather than atrophying it and poke up your kWh usage. Some makers prefer an hour-and-a-half on a still relatively cool 140C. You can turn the fruit every half hour to prevent burning, but this will let the heat out of the cavity. Try turning after the first two hours and give them another half hour if they are still soft, before checking your progress.
Let the tray of fruit cool, before pressing some whole cloves into the flesh of the citrus slices. To stack up a garland, try shuffling up apple and orange slices on edge, and threading them through the centre on plain twine, including some cinnamon sticks on a wire twisted in to hide the supports and a little holly (only from your own garden). Smaller stacks, bookended with half-sticks of cinnamon and star anise, are perfect for fascinating tree ornaments.
Together with displaying your successfully dried-out fruit slices, you can eat these goodies too. Stored as healthy sweet treats, these creations can remain edible for months in a sealed container in a dry cool place.
Try dipping dried citrus pieces including lengths of sour, chewy rinds in quality, melted dark chocolate, completely smothering them or leaving half the slice on show. These citrus sweets, together with crystallised fruit or glacé (wildly popular in France and Italy) make excellent home-made presents for family and friends just tied up into a simple brown bag with a little applied decoration in scraps of materials, glitter pens, cutouts from old Christmas cards and stickers.
Don’t invite kids to eat displayed dried fruit creations, as they will gather dust, and simply won’t be clean enough to nibble on after a week or two.
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