Christmas has always been about smells for me. Long long ago it was all about the resinous scent of pine from the Christmas tree yard, soon filling the house with the same smell, giving you a jolt of surprise each time you got it again. I found getting the Christmas tree almost overwhelming when I was a kid, as I’d get so excited about it, and the wave of pine scent was very much a part of that.
Whether I changed or the trees changed I don’t know (maybe both), but I find it harder to access that same smell now in my mind and at Christmas; I occasionally get a fraction of it still, when the branches are being trimmed, which is thrilling, but a little tenuous; not enough to pin a whole festive feeling on.
So where I get my Christmas fix now is from the smell of oranges. Oranges go way back for me too – the waxy scent of orange slice Christmas tree decorations at the school fair; making clove orange pomanders in front of the fire, thumb numb from the exertion; having Russian tea at 4pm on a dank late November day; then the baking – mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, all getting an energetic zesting of orange. The orange in the bottom of your stocking, cold and sure and perfect.
In recent years I’d add Christmassy cocktails into that list too – a Negroni, an Old Fashioned, some kind of tipsily made Cointreau + prosecco thing with a twist of orange zest. Even just the bright room-filling scent of a cold mandarin orange being peeled in an office when everyone is getting to the point in the year of being easily distracted.
I try to have oranges around all the time in winter, and I use them in lots of baking too. I came up these orange and cranberry scones last weekend and they were a real hit – gently zesty; slightly sweet; light, fluffy and beautifully risen.
Usually my family don’t bother with a special breakfast on Christmas Day, but this year given no one will have been out at the pub the night before, I might suggest we have these scones with coffee mid-morning. They’d also be nice as part of a festive brunch or for an outdoor meet up, with hot drink in hand. They only take about 25 minutes to make and are very easy to make. They also have a celebratory feel, especially if you make them in the triangles and serve as a circle on a big platter.
ORANGE & CRANBERRY SCONES
Makes 8 big ones or 12 smaller
450g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
Tiny pinch of salt
50g caster sugar
110g butter, diced
1 egg, lightly beaten (plus another for glazing)
Around 180ml whole milk
1 large orange
75g dried cranberries (preferably ones that have been treated with some oil + sugar – look at the ingredients)
1 tsp orange extract (if you can find it, just omit if not)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Around 50g icing sugar
Heat your oven to 250c. Only when it is really scorching start baking (important for a good rise!). Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar, the zest of most of the orange (leave a tiny bit for later) and the cranberries. Using your fingertips, lightly rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. In a measuring jug, add the juice half of half the orange then top that up to the 200ml line with the milk. Add the cream to the jug along with the orange and vanilla extracts. Pour that into the flour mix. Mix with a wooden spoon to combine, it should be just starting to form into a dough ball. Gather it all up and tip it out onto a floured surface. Using very gentle, minimal movements, shape it into a circle the size of a dinner plate. Gently cut that into segments with the sharpest knife you own, and carefully transfer the segments to greased baking sheets. Brush with beaten egg. Bake for around 15 minutes or until well risen and deeply golden. Leave to cool on a cooling rack then sieve over some icing sugar and zest the remainder of the orange over them. If you want a bit of icing on them too (recommended, it’s been a tough year), mix together 50g icing sugar with the juice of the remaining orange half (add more icing sugar if it’s too loose) and drizzle over the scones. Once the icing has set, enjoy!