I remember one particular Christmas day when I was probably about 8 or 9 and it was hot. I was given bright yellow togs (swim suit) for Christmas that had a keyhole clasp at the back and I think they had a brocade like pattern on them. I swam in those togs until they near wore through and the bright yellow faded to the colour of butter. But that Christmas we spent all day in the garden playing petanque and in the afternoon we turned on the sprinkler and christened our new togs. I remember these togs so fondly for this was possibly the last Christmas day of endless hot sunshine.
The next year we were in long sleeves and jeans. And every year since then our summer in Wellington seems to have shifted and come Christmas we are still plagued by spring winds and the accompanying unpredictability. Last week we had two days of 25 degrees and it was glorious. Everyone was optimistic for a hot, even if brief, summer. But north of New Zealand cyclone Evan lashes the islands of the Pacific and the cyclone’s most southern tendrils might just whip the North Island by the end of the week. Two days ago, from the hills down to the harbour, Wellington was shrouded beneath a thick fog.
When we wait with trepidation nearly every year to see what Christmas weather will bring, knowing it’s likely to be dull, it seems quite sensible for Christmas to be in winter. A day spent inside with a lit fire, hot drinks, heavy roasts and biscuits scented with the most warming of spices. But down here in the south Pacific we hang on desperately to this idyllic image of a barbecue Christmas playing beach cricket and wearing t-shirt and shorts. In Wellington we should find a happy medium. I’m guessing we’ll find this through food, somewhere between the spinach and tarragon stuffed turkey breast wrapped in bacon and the bright red strawberries and soft raspberries.
However, after all that hand wringing and lamenting at the often appalling Wellington climate which, I’m sorry, seems such a feature of this blog, there are a few Christmas mainstays no matter which you hemisphere you reside: Christmas cookies. I like the romance and the heady spice of an Italian or German Christmas biscuit; spiked with citrus, perhaps of the candied variety, and almost potent with cinnamon, ginger, mace and cloves. But it is the decidedly more British biscuit, the shortbread, that caught my attention this year.
Whether the Scots believe in adding ground almonds, orange zest and a splash of orange blossom water to their beloved shortbread is yet to be investigated, but I definitely do. These biscuits are good; it’s barely half six in the morning and I’ve already eaten two, contemplating the crispness, the shortness, if you will, of the biscuit. There is the smallest of shatters as you bite beneath the almond crust, and the familiar flavour of buttery, mellow shortbread comes to the fore. But then there is something else entirely – the sweet zest of orange, the woody green hint of cloves and the dab of orange blossom water brushed onto the surface of the hot biscuits whispers floral notes.
It’s strangely Christmas-y in this regard, perhaps of the southern hemisphere sort with summer flowers and our native Christmas tree.
Orange and Almond Shortbread
Recipe heavily adapted from here.
It is best to be timid when brushing the liquid onto the hot biscuits. The almond is a subtle flavour and you don’t want anything too overpowering nor do you want to soften the biscuit.
180 grams soft butter
125 grams icing sugar
80 grams ground almonds (plus extra for dusting and rolling).
115 grams plain flour
65 grams cornflour
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
finely grated zest of half an orange
orange blossom water or orange liqueur
Cream the butter and the icing sugar until pale and creamy. Sift the dry ingredients plus the orange zest. Mix with a spoon or your hands until just combined. On a clean dry surface sprinkle ground almonds and turn out shortbread mixture. Roll dough through the ground almonds and form into a long sausage shape, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes. In the meantime pre-heat the oven to 160°C and line a baking tray.
Unwrap the dough and slice into 1.5 centimetre rounds. Place on a baking tray and bake for 15 minutes. Once the biscuits have been removed from the oven use a pastry brush to lightly brush on orange blossom water or another orange liqueur like Cointreau. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before dusting in icing sugar if you choose.