Cookie Love Letters

My Favorite Christmas Cookies Aren’t Cookies at All — They’re Candied Orange Peels

updated Dec 13, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Christopher Michel

I’m an only child, but my dad has seven brothers and sisters, most of whom had at least two kids, and often three or four. I didn’t see my many, many cousins much (we lived several states away) — but I would see them every year at Christmas. Christmas morning each family had their own celebration, but the night before, the entire gaggle would gather together for cookies and board games, and the kids would usually get to open just one present each. It was an incredibly spectacular and chaotic event.

We would usually dress up and then drive the many hours straight to the party, arriving in the dark. I remember walking into my aunt’s enormous house (the only one that would hold all of us), to find older kids running around, throwing things, shouting and playing. My dad would join my uncles gathered in the living room or the den, to chat and catch up. A few aunts would often be in the kitchen minding my youngest cousins, who were crawling or toddling, putting things in their mouths and begging to be picked up. Everywhere was noisy.

I was a quiet kid, and I usually felt more than a little overwhelmed re-meeting everyone. In order to get my bearings, I’d try to find a quiet place. And invariably, the quietest place would be — for some reason — a small room, just off the front hall. That’s where the giant dining room table would be stashed, with trays upon trays of cookies — all made by my aunts — laid upon it.

You’d think the cookie room would be packed, but oddly it didn’t tend to be. I think that’s partly because it was cramped, dominated as it was by the huge table. People would drift in, grab a plate and stack it up, then leave. I’d hang out there, nibbling on everything: snow balls, meringue kisses, shortbread, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter kiss cookies, and more. But there was always something on the table (my dad’s oldest sister, Barbara, would make them) that wasn’t a cookie: candied orange peels. My aunt would dip half of them in the darkest chocolate I’d ever (to that point) tasted, and the other half she simply rolled in sugar.

I liked the cookies, but I loved the candied orange peels. Maybe I loved them because, like me, they seemed a little out of place. They were so surprising! Orange peels aren’t something you eat. They’re something you throw away. But there they were, glittering with sugar. Eat one, and it was even more surprising. It felt so stiff and brittle. And it was unexpectedly crunchy. It didn’t just taste like eating an orange — it was strong! It was bitter. The sugar couldn’t hide the flavor, either. If you ate more than one or two, the edges of your tongue would start to go a little numb. I would eat a couple, then wait, then come back and eat a few more, as many as I could stand.

I stopped seeing my cousins at Christmas years ago. As we all went off to college, got married, and started our own families, that big event more or less stopped happening. But at Christmas now, I still like to make candied orange peels, and then I share them with my own family. They’re not hard to make (easier than cookies, possibly) and there are only two ingredients: oranges and sugar. One of my daughters won’t eat them — too bitter. The other? She eats as many as she can stand.

Credit: Christopher Michel

How I Make Candied Orange Peels

Although my aunt Barbara (after seeing me go back to the bowl multiple times) wrote the recipe down for me years ago, it’s one of my great regrets that I lost it. So when I make them now, I follow Alton Brown’s recipe. However, I make a couple changes that I like to think are inspired by my aunt. Alton recommends using a peeler to peel the oranges — instead, I quarter the oranges and peel them, then slice the peels into ribbons. Then I used a paring knife to cut some — but not all — of the pith off. I leave a little of the bitterness.

After that I follow his instructions for blanching and candying them, but I don’t let the liquid boil off quite as much as he does. Instead, I let it simmer until the liquid is half gone — I save about a cup of the orange-flavored simple syrup that remains (pictured above) for making cocktails. Then I put about 2/3 of a cup of sugar on a plate, and I roll the peels in them while they are still sticky. After that, I put them on a rack to cool and harden. They’re every bit as good as I remember.

Get the recipe: Candied Orange Peels from Alton Brown

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.