Every day this winter I’ve eyed my citron melons in the entry hall, admiring their summery beauty and wondering how long they would keep. Some people say they store well for a whole year, but I’m guessing that’s true only in a quite cool place, such as an unheated cellar. The temperature in my entry hall is usually about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, probably not cool enough to warrant pushing my luck past February. Last week I figured that, though I didn’t need more citron melon preserves, I also didn’t want to lose the chance to experiment more with the melons, which I might never grow again. So I cut into a second one.
Although citron melons are notorious for their hard rinds, I’d had no trouble cutting my first melon, back in December. This time the rind seemed to have toughened. I sympathized with the writer of a poem, published in the Burra, Australia, Record in 1935, that begins this way:
There ain’t no dish I’d rather try
Than my dear wife’s good melon pie.
I get a melon from the pit
And take the axe and open it.
Instead of an axe I used my twelve-inch chef’s knife, which Robert bought me for cutting big winter squashes. I’ve been a little bit scared of this knife ever since the day it flew into the air and I caught it by the blade instead of the handle. Now I often use the knife by holding it in place and pounding it with a rubber hammer (which as you can see I also use for closing paint cans).
That worked to split the melon cleanly. Cutting the halves into wedges, as I’d done to make citron melon preserves, would be too difficult and dangerous, because besides growing a tougher skin the melon had also become more mucilaginous, as if someone had injected it with a quart of aloe juice. My hands and cutting board were already slippery. I tried spooning out the pulp, but that was slow going. So I used a technique I often rely on for another hard fruit, the quince. I turned the halves face down and sliced them straight downward. Then, using a smaller, thinner blade, I cut the rind from the slices without much trouble.
Now I needed to remove the big, hard, numerous seeds. I picked as many as I could out of the sliced flesh, cut the slices into smaller pieces, and picked out more seeds. This is a job to do while listening to an excellent radio program, so you don’t start dwelling on the question of what your time is worth.
Although I hadn’t found a single pie recipe for this fruit that’s often called a pie melon, I‘d found two recipes for compotes of sorts, one in Mildred Maddocks’s Pure Food Cook Book, published in New York in 1914, and one from an unnamed cook in Queensland, who described the fruit as “So country! So winter! So not dinner party material.”
I based my recipe less on Mildred’s than on the Queenslander’s, which included, enticingly, cinnamon and marsala. Lacking marsala, I used brandy.
Although the Queenslander used only a quarter of a melon, her other quantities seemed about right for my five-pound melon; this made me wonder just how big citron melons grow in Queensland. I wonder also if the flesh of Queensland pie melons is especially tender, because whereas the Queenslander cooks her compote for about forty minutes, mine needed two hours for the melon to soften.
As these differences indicate, melons called citron or pie melon can vary a lot. Mine are striped, white-fleshed, red-seeded, and tasteless. If yours vary from this description, you may need to adjust the recipe.
Baked Citron Melon Compote
½ cup raisins
¼ cup brandy
1 5-pound citron melon
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons butter
Soak the raisins in the brandy for at least several hours.
Peel and seed the melon, and cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the zest from the orange and lemon in fine strips, and then squeeze out the juice, picking or straining out any seeds.
In a three-quart casserole, combine the raisins, their soaking liquid, the melon cubes, the sugar, and the orange and lemon juices and zests. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the mixture, and dot with the butter. Bake the compote uncovered for about two hours, turning the fruit gently a few times, until the melon is tender, golden, and slightly translucent.
You can serve the compote warm or cool, perhaps with cream, though I like it plain.
The compote turned out mildly sweet. If you think you’d like it sweeter, honey would be a pleasant addition. The fruit’s mucilaginous texture remained after baking, but neither Robert nor I found it objectionable; I think it’s growing on me. Because the melon is virtually tasteless, all the flavor of the dish comes from the added flavorings–the raisins, brandy, cinnamon, and citrus. How could a dessert with those flavors be anything but good?
As the Queenslander points out, you could make this dish into a pie by thickening the liquid (with cornstarch or arrowroot or just by simmering it down a bit), spooning the fruit and liquid into a baked pie shell, and perhaps adding a topping of cream or meringue. I like the compote just as it is, though, for breakfast or an afternoon or late-evening snack–and maybe even as a homey dinner-party dessert.