September 10, 2012
kumquat farcies au fromage blanc
(sweet-cheese-stuffed kumquat shells)
We’d get up before dawn in order to beat the heat along U.S. Route 99, the old road that ran up the center of California’s Central Valley. For most of the almost 300 miles between Manteca and Mojave, a journey that today still takes almost five hours, we’d fly along at about 60 miles an hour with all the windows rolled down in either a big Chevrolet or Buick, depending upon which brand my father had purchased that year.
In those days, the roadway was made of concrete, not asphalt. At every seam, the joint was filled with tar to keep water out. There was a constant thump of the tires as they drove over the joints. The road was either two lanes, three lanes, or sometimes even four lanes with a divider. There were signs that said “End Freeway,” meaning that you were coming onto either an uncontrolled intersection or maybe a stoplight. Then immediately past the intersection there would be a new sign announcing “Freeway Begins.” A short ways down the road, the charade would start again.
The cars of the 1950s were big. This was the days before bucket seats. Air conditioning wasn’t for us. Anyway, it would have caused the car to overheat on hot days. There was an outside, rearview mirror on the left side, a radio, and a heater—all extras my father had paid for above the base cost of the car. I think these cars had turn signals, but you still had to know hand signals. Because it was hot outside, many people mounted a “desert water bag” in front of their radiator in case extra water was needed by the car or its occupants. My mother didn’t like the looks of that, so we just chanced it. Flat tires, engines over heating, and brakes seizing were common on long trips. My father was a long‑time member of the National Automobile Club and used their services frequently.
Along the road was lots of farmland and other occasional signs of civilization. The road ran through all of the major Central Valley towns, and when it did, it would become a city street for a short distance. Gradually, new road sections that bypassed the towns would be built. They would be labeled “US‑99 Bypass.” The original road would still pass though the towns, but you only used it if you needed to stop.
On the edges of the towns would be motels, the post‑war portmanteau for the motor hotels that has started in the 1920s. These would be single‑story buildings where the guests would park their cars directly in front of their room in the often unpaved parking area. The good ones had swimming pools and maybe even some form of air conditioning. The sign outside would say that the rooms were “refrigerated,” the cooling being provided by an evaporative cooler. These appliances were given the pejorative “swamp cooler” because they caused the room to become quite humid and not especially cool. There’d be an office for registering near the entrance to the motel. A soda machine dispensing bottles of the local soda would sit just outside the office door. Rather than staying at one of these places, my parents always passed right through the valley.
Depending on the time of year, and what crop was in season, there’d be fruit and vegetable stands along the road. But, these were the days before modern fast food, and most eating was done at cafes and drive‑ins near or in the towns that Route 99 passed through. And then there was Giant Orange.
Every few miles, or maybe a bit farther, along the side of the road was a large building in the shape and color of an orange, the Giant Orange. Maybe about twenty feet high and just a bit wider, these orange stucco buildings would have a single door in the back and a window in the front. From the window, food and drink would be dispensed. Some only sold orange juice, whereas others distributed food and a variety of cold drinks. As a child I thought these big oranges were cool, but my mother found them disgusting, so we rarely stopped at them. By the time I was traveling north on Route 99 on my way home from my first year away at college in 1967, most of “oranges” were gone or abandoned.
These were some of the memories that came to mind when I ate my first kumquats earlier this year. I was shopping at Trader Joe’s and saw this box of tiny, olive‑shaped oranges for $1.99. Having never tried a kumquat before, I took a leapt of faith and bought the box. Popping a couple in my mouth I thought, “not bad.”
I was initially attracted to the kumquats because they looked like something that could be fashioned into an amuse‑bouche or mignardise. After I found some personal restraint, stopped munching away on the kumquats, and started to give some thought to how I would use the fruit, I decided the first order of business was to clean out the juice vesicles, seeds , and albedo so that only the peel would remain. After cleaning five or six out, I threw the peels into a bowl along with a 0.4% Pectinex SPL solution to remove the remaining albedo.
The next day, all that was left in the bowl was the liquid and five thin, orange shells of flavedo. The peel was now so thin, that I could not hold one without collapsing it. So I took a step backward. I started as I had the day before by cutting enough of each kumquat’s narrow end off to expose the segments inside. Then I used a 5‑mm (1⁄5‑in) baller as a curette to gently scrap away everything from the inside leaving just the flavedo, which was now thicker and stiffer and just as clean. It seems that with a little help, the albedo separates cleanly from the flavedo on a kumquat.
I tried various fillings. The first was a “cream” made from Meyer‑lemon syrup, Versawhip, and xanthum gum. This whipped up beautifully in my stand mixer using the whisk attachment. The texture was similar to an Italian meringue. I piped it into the kumquat shells. The look was nice, but the flavor didn’t standout.
The next filling was similar except I substituted concentrated chicken broth for the syrup. This took forever to whip, and although it finally resembled a meringue, it was not particularly stable. I placed some in the refrigerator and some in the freezer. The refrigerated version improved when I crushed some of the air out of it, but the flavor still didn’t stand up to the kumquat. The frozen version held it’s shape well, but it’s flavor was even more subtle.
I next decided to try using a siphon jar to foam the filling so I could switch away from the Versawhip. I found a recipe for mousse à la cannelle (cinnamon mousse) in a small (12 cm by 12 cm [43⁄4 in by 43⁄4 in] by 61 pages) tome I picked up on a recent trip to France. The book is called Espumas & mousses and is written by Frédéric Berqué. I used the siphon jar to make the foam, but I actually piped the foam into the kumquats because the tip on the siphon was too big. The cinnamon offset the kumquat peel very nicely.
200 ml (13⁄16 c)
80 g (213⁄16 oz)
1. Whisk all the ingredients together and strain. Pour into a 0.5 liter siphon jar, seal, and charge with a single nitrous‑oxide cartridge.
2. Refrigerate for an hour.
3. Dispense all of the mousse into a pastry tube fitted with a small star tip. Pipe the mousse into the kumquats, and decorate the tops with more mousse.
4. Serve the kumquats soon after piping.
Yield: 20 to 40 kumquats, depending on size and generosity.