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Oranges and Chocolate: Romancing the Rind

Last winter, I decided to make a special present for my husband, Randy, who loves chocolate with an epic passion.

Although he is capable of being abstemious at the dinner table when the occasion requires, he is powerless before the siren lure of dark chocolate — particularly when it is languidly wrapped about a bit of candied orange rind.

It is this confection that I secretly resolved to undertake, disposing of any evidence and failed prototypes by means of the nearest container — that is to say, myself.

So rapturous were the results that the chocolate orange rinds are well on their way to becoming a Valentine's tradition in our house.

That I could contemplate making them at all is thanks to 200 years of colonial rapacity, since neither oranges nor chocolate is native to this country.

The story of sweet oranges starts in China, several millennia ago. Citrus traveled, in its slow botanical way, across the near East; by 1400, the orange had found its way to Sicily. Sea travel and empire eased its passage to northern Europe.

But because the orange was perishable and grew only where it was warm, it remained rare late into the 19th century, when it could be found as a prize at the bottom of a Victorian Christmas stocking.

It wasn't until the advance in transportation infrastructure, freezing and canning brought about by World War II that the taste of orange became a winter commonplace. Even then, it was expensive to transport in a ripe and unaltered state.

The ripe and unaltered state of chocolate, on the other hand, would be recognizable to few.

Though natives of the Amazon Basin knew of its value and used its seeds for currency 1,000 years before Christ, the cacao pod would have been about as welcome in a Victorian Christmas stocking as a deflated football stuffed with insulation (which it strongly resembles).

The nibs must be separated, fermented and dried; the beans cleaned, roasted, winnowed, ground, conched, tempered and molded before the finished product achieves its signature state of smooth perfection.

All this means that chocolate was a luxury from the start. Fierce control of the considerable labor expense often reduced workers to a state of near-slavery (conditions which persist in places to this day).

Still, fussy, laborious chocolate made its way everywhere, commanding its own price before a swooning public.

In making chocolate orange peel, though, one soon finds it is the orange that is labor intensive. It has to be peeled, trimmed, sliced, blanched, drained, blanched twice more, simmered in sugar syrup and dried.

All this I did and more, hiding the sticky, translucent, sparkling rinds in a drafty, unused room, which I prayed the local fauna — squirrels, mice and humans aged 4, 45 and 72 --would find as uncomfortable as I did.

Unlike prepping the rinds, coating them in chocolate is simplicity itself: Melt the chocolate, dip the rinds. (You could temper the chocolate if you really wanted it to look nice.) That's about all there is to it. Then leave them to finish drying even if doing so means you have to bind yourself to the mast, as Odysseus did to resist the sirens' song.

While I try to eat local and live sustainable, I find these two tropical exotics — citrus from the farthest reaches of the Old World and cacao from the heart of the New — an irresistible pairing. Especially here in Massachusetts' dark and cold, so out of place and season.

To bite into chocolate orange mousse, or into the elemental chocolate orange rind itself, is to experience the force of taste at its strongest, when willpower lies trodden on the ground and the lizard brain shuts down in ecstasy.

It's no surprise if the flavor is somehow reminiscent of the king's ransom it would have taken to unite the pair a few centuries ago. I may not have sailed turbid seas or braved tropical doldrums to bring back precious cargo to my love, but I'll tell you, that storage room was plenty cold.

My gift to my husband of chocolate orange rinds is a commodity dense with accumulated labor and stored pleasure. But unlike a diamond, whose currency and power remain undiminished over time, the value of chocolate orange rinds depreciates, and drops to nil when they are gone.

While you have them, they exert an uplifting effect on the household mood: A glass of wine appears in the kitchen before dinner. The compost gets emptied, and socks find their way into the hamper.

But there's no need to quantify the rate of exchange. I make chocolate orange rinds principally for love, the most powerful currency of all. Like oranges and chocolate, my husband and I have come a long way to find each other — and we're better off together than apart.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: braising.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.
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