Greek “spoon sweets” – a recipe for bitter oranges in sweet syrup

The first time we’ve tried these in Cyprus, from where I’ve also brought a jar of heavenly walnuts. They were made using whole, green, young nuts, whose shells hadn’t hardened yet. “Spoon sweets” (γλυκό του κουταλιού, glyko tou koutaliou) or fruit cooked in syrup, are intensive sweets eaten in small amounts, traditionally served on a spoon to greet guests. Even though they can be found outside of Greece as well — we were able to try them in other Balkan countries — here they can be found in many a pantry. They’re made of almost any kind of fruit, and sometimes even from vegetables, like mini-eggplants. Usually the ‘substrate’ is green, unripened, very sour or bitter, but after proper preparation and a hot syrup bath, it changes completely.

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Usually, I’m the last one in the line for sweets. Here on Crete I can’t recognize myself because what delights me even more than dinner is the super-sweet juice from fresh oranges or semolina cakes doused with it, or Greek yogurt with good honey (or with honey and tahini, yummy!) or yogurt with beautiful… glistening… colorful… bits of sweet fruit with syrup, in which we dip our spoon simultaneously.

As it turns out, two small orange trees in the garden produce bitter oranges that nobody really wants to eat (in fact they’re sour, only the skin is bitter), so I decided to save them from oblivion and at the same time learn how to prepare Greek sweets they’re the source of.

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Everybody whom I told I’m preparing glyko nerantzi told me that it’s something only grandmas have the time and patience to do because the peeling, soaking and cooking is tedious and time-consuming. After finishing, I must say that it’s rather easy and if you’re not making wholesale amounts, it doesn’t take so much time and furthermore, the process is divided into separate stages, so you can enjoy life in the time between.

To prepare these, all you need is :

– bitter oranges, the same that are used for English marmalade, also known as Seville oranges, in my case it was 20 rather small ones

– a hill of sugar (don’t worry, you’ll be eating only a piece or two at a time!), I had a bit less than a 1,5 kg

– juice from one or two lemons

You’ll never guess which part of orange is used for glyko nerantzi! First we have to peel off the thin outside layer of the skin, best done with a peeler with jagged blade. Next, we cut the layer underneath into four or six (in case of large fruit) parts and get it off the fruit carefully as not to damage it (the skin). And yes, that’s what we’ll be using! The thick layers of white ‘foam’ is the raw material here. The rest, outer peel and flesh, can be used for marmalade or cakes.

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Traditonally, the skin is rolled and put onto a thread but I decided using toothpicks will be easier. The restless can diverge from the recipe and forego rolling althogether (a pity!). The skins are very bitter, so we have to cover them with cold water, in a pot, and leave to soak in a cool place or the refrigerator for about 8 hours. After this, the water needs to be changed several times over the course of two days.

Even though the process does not get rid of all the bitterness, together with sugar syrup, the taste will be great. So, after another change of water, we put the pot on fire and bring to boil for about 15-20 minutes. Then turn off the heat and pour out the water. Now it’s the time to prepare the sugar syrup — we can do it in the same pot, after putting the oranges aside, or use another one.

We’ll use 4-4,5 glasses of water and all of the sugar. The mixture needs to be cooked and stirred until the sugar dissolves. Then we add the orange skins, with toothpicks removed, and boil for another 15 minutes or a bit longer, until they soften up a bit. The heat is off and we leave the oranges in the syrup overnight. Finally, we take the oranges out using a colander spoon and put them on a plate. The leftover syrup needs about 15 minutes of boiling to thicken up a bit.

The jars (in my case two large ones and one small) need scalding, together with the lids. We put the skins in the syrup once again, bring to a boil, add the lemon juice and transfer oranges to jars and top up with syrup. Close the lids tightly, turn the jars upside down and leave to cool. Finished!

Short review:

  • peel the outside layer, get the white skin, roll it and thread it
  • soak in cold water for 2 days changing water every 8 hours or so
  • boil for 15 minutes
  • dissolve the sugar in water and boil for a bit, add oranges and boil for another quarter hour or until desired tenderness
  • leave in syrup overnight
  • take out oranges, boil the syrup to thicken
  • bring to boil everything together once more, add lemon juice
  • transfer oranges to clean, scalded jars, and top up with syrup

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*if the bitter oranges are a rare bird in your country, you can try using regular ones instead (glyko portokali)

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