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IN THE KITCHEN : Orange Blossom Special

March 10, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

We who live in California tend to forget that citrus fruits are really a fairly exotic sub-tropical specialty. They grow so willy-nilly here that something as extravagantly perfumed as a navel orange is treated as if it were an onion.

But think about it for a minute. Is there anything that smells better than a citrus tree in bloom? In the full flower of late spring (earlier, it seems, this year), I'll sometimes bring a lemon branch or an orange branch into the kitchen and stick it in water as if it were an orchid. The next morning, the room is full of the opulent, heady smell of the flower.

That smell, so sweet it's nearly cloying yet at the same time clean and bracing, has changed by the time the flower has turned to fruit. Not that there's anything wrong with the smell of an orange, mind you, but somehow the extra dimension of spiciness has vanished.

That smell was on my mind last weekend as I picked some oranges from the tree in my back yard. I wanted to make a dessert to follow a fairly weighty mid-winter meal. What I really wanted, to tell the truth, was a Dreamsicle.

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You may remember them from childhood runs to the Good Humor truck. The Dreamsicle was an orange Popsicle that always seemed to have an aura of sophistication missing in more plebeian fare--the Fudgesicle, for example.

That extra element was vanilla, and just a little bit of it lifted the Dreamsicle from Popsicle-dom to something approaching elegance (or, at least as much elegance as kids on bikes would accept). When you get right down to it, a Dreamsicle smells closer to an orange flower than almost anything else I can think of.

The problem was, there was only one real orange-vanilla dessert I could ever remember eating. That was at some small-town continental restaurant where the maitre d'--a tuxedoed older gentleman who said he had spent 20 years waiting tables in some of the finest establishments in Las Vegas--prepared his table-side specialty by whipping together a casino-elegant combination of nearly melted vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet.

That wasn't exactly what I had in mind. If I served something like that after a big dinner of baked beans, bratwursts and ale, I was afraid we'd have to soap the guests down before we could squeeze them out the front door.

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What I wanted was something lighter but with the same intensity of flavor. So I decided to try and poach the oranges in a vanilla-scented syrup. It took a couple of tries to get it just right. Hint: Do not try to actually poach peeled oranges. Pour boiling syrup over oranges and let them steep, that's all the cooking they need. And lay off the orange flower water. Though it seems logical that orange flower water would smell like orange flowers, to my nose it more resembles orange cough syrup.

Also, you must use vanilla beans to get the full effect. I made the dish once with vanilla extract and, while that may be fine for baking, it just doesn't deliver the flowery smell of the bean. Sure the beans are a little expensive, but we live in Southern California, so oranges are cheap, right?

So here's the question: Did I love Dreamsicles because they smelled like orange blossoms, or do I love orange blossoms because they smell like Dreamsicles?

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The basic idea of this recipe--oranges gently poached in a fairly heavy syrup--can be turned many different ways. If you like, try some cinnamon or cloves. I've even seen it done with rosemary, though I am so sick of rosemary these days that in my garden it's practically an ornamental rather than a culinary herb.

DREAMSICLE ORANGES

6 navel oranges

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

With thin, sharp knife, trim tops and bottoms of oranges so that flesh shows. Place orange flat on cutting board. Start with knife at point where white of peel meets orange flesh and, following curve of orange and using gentle sawing motion, slice 1 1/2- to 2-inch wide strip of peel from orange, cutting away both white and peel but leaving as much flesh as possible. Repeat until all peel is removed, preferably 5 to 6 slices. Repeat with remaining oranges, reserving peel of 2 oranges.

Combine water and sugar in saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to boil and cook 5 minutes. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into pan and then add bean halves. Add reserved peels from 2 oranges. Boil 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Steep 30 to 60 minutes.

While syrup is cooking, carefully slice oranges horizontally into 1/2-inch slices. There should be about 4 slices per orange. Carefully remove seeds from center sections.

Layer orange slices in large, flat serving bowl. Pour syrup through strainer over slices. Arrange vanilla bean strips in X on top. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Chill at least 1 hour. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

321 calories; 2 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 83 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.64 gram fiber.

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