Tis the season (in most western countries) for everything around us to turn towards Christmas. Whether or not you celebrate the holiday, everything from shop fronts to grocery stores, popular music, even the way in which we greet each other and attempt to make small talk (“All set now, got your shopping done?”) all point towards one culminating day of the year. A day for which a great team of marketing experts has lead us to believe that all plans, expectations, family relations and money saved and spent are scheduled to perform a spectacle so big, so overwhelming magical, nothing short of a Christmas miracle will do. This hyperbolic description may have a slight undertone of cynicism; like a Jew who’s spent her whole life observing the phenomenon, and more specifically the marketing around the holiday. And well, that’s a fairly accurate description.
As a child, I ate up all of the heartwarming Christmas specials on television. When Full House’s Tanner family spent their Christmas snowed in, in the San Fransisco airport without their present-filled luggage, I welled up with tears when they miraculously found each other and their luggage just in time to celebrate the holiday, breaking out into Christmas carols as the episode concluded. My family and I looked forward to spending Christmas eve driving around the neighbourhood for hours (or until either my sister or I needed to pee), gasping in awe at the beautiful Christmas lights strung up in displays, twinkling and glowing in the otherwise pitch black freezing cold night. As we got older my parents took the opportunity as invitation to volunteer at our local food bank, to allow those working there who celebrated Christmas a day off to spend with their families. But like most Jewish families in the US, we didn’t really find the ‘Christmas magic’ at our neighbourhood Chinese restaurant or movie theater (the only two places open that day), rather the comfort of having somewhere warm and delicious to be whilst the rest of the country seemingly took part in something rather mysterious, spectacular and other-worldly. Being a non-Christian on Christmas is much like a real life crash course in anthropology.
My first real dose of Christmas magic didn’t come until my mid-twenties, walking around a hushed Old Town in Albuquerque New Mexico, Christmas eve. Old Town is a pedestrianised area of the city, lined with art galleries, specialty food shops and restaurants, Native American jewelry shops and antique markets. It is the pinnacle of historic, picturesque Albuquerque- and exactly the image you would conjure up if asked to picture New Mexico. With the Sandia Mountains standing off in the distance, the cold dessert air, dry enough that it actually hurt your nose to breath it in, was filled with heavy, warming scents of campfire, cinnamon and aniseed; the smell of burning pinon and freshly made biscochitos, surrounded by the glow of individually lit candles, shining their light through unassuming small brown paper bags filled with sand, which lined each adobe wall and pathway. Having never experienced anything quite like it before, it felt like something out of a dream. Other-worldly. Magical.
I have had the pleasure of witnessing and partaking in a variety of Christmas traditions since. I’ve spend the holiday in Prague at a friend’s family home, welcomed into the family celebrations with open arms as we walked around the Christmas markets, enjoying fresh cod and potato salad on the day- a Czech Christmas tradition. At my Scottish mother-in-law’s home we pull apart Christmas crackers, eating haggis neeps and tatties on Christmas eve and watching the Queen’s speech on Christmas day with a glass of champagne in hand.
At our own home we are slowly carving out our own traditions. We leave Santa cookies as well as a wee dram and watch the girls perfect their preemptive thank you notes and drawings to Father Christmas and the Reindeer go along with the offering, whilst wrapped up in their annual Christmas eve pj’s. It’s fun, watching them on Christmas morning as they try to figure out how Santa got down the chimney and look for clues as to where he has been- a crumb here or a piece of furniture out of place there. Experiencing the event with children makes it all a bit magical- but it’s a different kind of magic. Its an earthly kind of magic, rooted in its realness, the magical quirks of being alive.
This year I’ve decided to start a new tradition; adding a bit of New Mexican magic to our festivities by making Biscochitos. Peppered with aniseed and cinnamon served during celebratory occasions, it’s a very traditional New Mexican taste and smell- one which I tangibly remember from my night in Old Town.
An adaptation of a Mexican wedding cookie, with the word coming from Spanish colonizers, Bichochitos were originally developed by residents of Santa Fe and have been the official state cookie since 1989. Though traditionally made with lard, I confess I attempted a recipe a few weeks ago and found the cookies to have a distinctly porky after taste – far from ideal. Though I’ve heard there are much milder and flavourless versions of lard produced in the US, I’m sticking to vegetable shortening here in the UK to create that soft, light and flaky texture.
New Mexican Biscochitos
Adapted slightly from Some the Wiser
- 360g (3 cups) plain white flour
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons crushed anise seed
- zest of one orange
- 250g (1¼ cups) lard or vegetable shortening
- 200g (1 cup) sugar golden caster sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 3 teaspoons Calvados, brandy or apple juice
- 100g (½ cup) sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk in the anise and orange zest.
Using an electric mixer, beat the lard and sugar until light and fluffy, then add in your egg, vanilla and brandy, Calvados or apple juice. (I went for Calvados) Gradually beat in the flour mixture bit by bit on a low setting, until completely combined. Dough should be thick and similar in consistency to pie crust dough. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes or you could pop it into the freezer for 10-15 if you’re short on time.
Preheat oven to 170C/350F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon for topping.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to approx 2 cm or ¼ inch thickness. Cut out cookies in your preferred shape- I love using little stars here (stolen from my childrens old playdoh set and washed before use) as it makes for the perfect 2-bite cookie.
Place cookies on lined baking sheet and bake until just barely golden and set, about 10 to 12 minutes. Let cookies cool for about 30 seconds or so, then carefully dunk them into the cinnamon and sugar mixture, coating them as much as you can. Place on cookie rack until completely cooled. Then try to resist the temptation to go back for just one more…