Orange Flower Aperitivo
Orange Olivata Crostini
For me the aroma of orange has always been linked to Christmas. My father’s golf pro buddies would show up at my childhood home for holiday whisky sours, one of them inevitably bearing a little crate of highly waxed tangerines that, as the evening wore on, got opened up all over the house, their peels winding up on the floor, in the rug, their strong oils let loose by stomping feet. What a wonderful aroma. And then there were the big navel oranges my father always stuffed into the tip of our Christmas stockings, a dumbfounding gift when the refrigerator was crammed full of them, and when what I really wanted to find there was a $1.65 one-way ticket into Manhattan. Fast forward to me now, running my own little Christmas household. I always make a Sicilian orange salad as part of Christmas Eve dinner, with red onions, black olives, mint, black pepper, and my best Sicilian olive oil (which would be Ravida). It is the most refreshing thing in the world to eat after our big traditional Southern Italian fish meal.
Another source of holiday orange is orange flower water, whose aroma drives me wild with desire. That gorgeous liquid is made from orange flower blossoms. It doesn’t smell much like orange, but its amazing floral scent can take your holiday-heavy mind away to far-off, exotic places. It’s the perfume in ricotta cheesecake, which is traditional in Southern Italy for Easter but shows up at just about every holiday of ours, and always at Christmas. I buy orange flower water from France that comes in little cobalt blue bottles. I buy that kind just because the packaging is so beautiful, but Italian and Middle Eastern versions are also easy to find. It’s good just to sniff in, but a few drops mixed into a bowl of honeyed ricotta make for me a truly perfect dessert. I love it drizzled over sliced oranges too. A few years ago I made a tangerine orange flower sorbetto for Christmas Eve that was a big hit with my stuffed, drunken guests. Another year the same flavor combo turned up in a Sicilian-inspired gelatina that I put together with too little gelatin. It was a bit of a sloppy mess, but the aroma was pure beauty. You can overdo it with this stuff. Like any kind of perfume, an excess can make you or your food seem whorish, and we don’t want that (do we?).
Lately I’ve been wondering how orange flower water would taste with alcohol. I always knew it was a key ingredient in the Ramos gin fizz, but I’ve never, believe it or not, had one of those drinks. I’ve discovered that a few drops added to a vodka martini are a lovely touch. I’ve also learned that adding orange flower water to gin and dry vermouth gives you what is called a Victorian martini, a real named drink. I haven’t tried that yet, but I’m sure it’s excellent. Yet what really lifted my spirits was when I added a little to cold white wine. I came up with the Christmas aperitivo of my dreams. I mixed dry white wine (a falanghina from Campania), a splash of Cointreau, and a sprinkling of orange flower water. This slightly haunting drink is, I think, a very nice way to open up a Christmas day meal. And since, in theory, you should always have a little something to eat along with your drink, here’s an orange-tinged olivata to go with it. Merry Christmas to you, and happy holiday cooking.
My orange flower aperitivo in the company of garlic and grape Christmas tree ornaments.
Orange Flower Aperitivo
Fill a chilled wine glass about three quarters full with very cold, dry white wine. Add a teaspoon of chilled Cointreau and about 4 or 5 drops of orange flower water. Garnish with a long orange peel. Also nice on the rocks.
1 cup Gaeta olives, pitted
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 large orange
2 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
4 thyme sprigs, the leaves only
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Cointreau
Freshly ground black pepper
Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough paste. The texture should be a little chunky. Spoon the olivata into a serving bowl. You can make it a day or two ahead and refrigerate it, but be sure to get it back to room temperature before serving. Serve on toasted baguette slices.