9 November 2022 · Consuming passions
By Jack Van Amburg
Growing up, I have no memories of a cranberry that didn’t come from a can or bottle. Every Thanksgiving we’d pop the lid off a can of cranberry sauce and dump it unceremoniously into a glass serving dish. While it brought a nice splash of color to our holiday table, I can’t tell you how many times we made it to the end of our dinner completely forgetting it was on the table. Cranberry juice cocktail was the festive drink of choice for those not yet of age, packed with enough sugar to win over any child. Once December 1st rolled around any traces of cranberries would vanish just as they appeared, abruptly and without comment, not to be seen again until the next year.
It wasn’t until after I finished university that I had my first real cranberry experience. It was early November and I had stopped by a Williams-Sonoma where they were giving out free Thanksgiving guide pamphlets. A recipe with pears and Riesling caught my eye and I decided right then and there this was the year I’d make one. While that particular recipe didn’t end up being a winner, it did introduce me to the joys of fresh cranberries. Their deep crimson-hued surface. The way they plonk against each other like nature’s ping-pong balls as you tumble them into a pot. Their pops, sputters and hisses as they simmer away on the stove, perfuming the kitchen with wafts to spice and orange peel.
Once I’d made that first sauce, there was no going back – I’ve tried every cranberry recipe I could get my hands on. In the years since, I’ve discovered there are countless variations on cranberry sauce and the leftovers work great as the jam component on a cheese plate, spread over pancakes and waffles for breakfast, or used as a marinade for chicken. Those tart little berries are also right at home in sorbets, tarts, breads and pies. Here’s what I’ve learned about cooking with cranberries and which ckbk recipes you should make while they’re in season.
Fresh cranberries are usually found in perforated bags or plastic clamshells in the produce section of the market. Look for berries that are a rich, dark red color and feel almost hard to the touch. Squishy or shriveled berries are no longer good. Cranberries contain high amounts of benzoic acid, a natural preservative, giving them more durability and shelf life than other berries. The holes in cranberry packages encourage air circulation which keeps them fresh even longer, so storing them in their original packaging in the refrigerator will keep them fresh for at least a month.
Cranberries will last a full year in your freezer with little to no impact on their iconic color, flavor and texture. While you can transfer them (bag and all) to freezer containers and freeze right away, I like to wash them and pick out any bad berries first. Just tumble them into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water, picking out any shriveled or soft berries, as well as any with brown spots.
At this point you can either use them to cook with or store them in your freezer. I like to freeze them spread out on a parchment-lined baking sheet first, and then transfer them to freezer bags to store long term. This initial freeze keeps them from turning into a massive clump and makes it easier to scoop out handfuls as you need them throughout the year. You can purchase them already frozen in the freezer section of many markets, though sometimes at a substantial markup versus their fresh counterparts. If you have the space in your freezer, it’s usually more cost-effective to get an extra bag or two and freeze them yourself when they are in season.
The core essentials of a traditional cranberry sauce are cranberries, a sweetener, and a liquid. In fact, it’s probably the easiest component of any Thanksgiving meal. This classic cranberry sauce is a great starting point with just cranberries, sugar and water. From there you can flavor a sauce to match your tastes, like this one with cinnamon, cloves and orange zest. Another classic version (though less commonly seen now) is a raw cranberry relish, where the uncooked berries are finely chopped up with citrus and nuts. This Cranberry-Orange Relish builds on the traditional with three days of fermentation to let the flavors meld and develop.
If you don’t have a sweet tooth, there’s a world of sauces and chutneys you can make with cranberries that have a more savory bent. Onions and cider vinegar balance out the sweetness in this chutney that would be a perfect addition to any cheese plate. Your sauce can also bring the heat, such as this oven-roasted version that gets its spice from an entire jalapeño pepper.
While cranberry sauce is a great entryway into cooking with fresh or frozen cranberries, these versatile berries offer so much more and shouldn’t be relegated to a condiment you serve once a year. Cranberries bring a bright acidity to dishes that cuts through heavy, creamy textures. Not only that, their high levels of Vitamin C help fortify your body for cold and flu season. Here are the recipes I’ve bookmarked on ckbk to explore this cranberry season:
Roasted Pear and Cranberry Crostata: In this signature fall dessert from Joanne Chang’s Flour bakery in Boston, pears and cranberries sit atop a layer of homemade frangipane.
Finnish Meatballs with Allspice, Sour Cream & Lingonberries: The lingonberry jam used here can also be made with cranberries, which balances against the richness of the cream sauce.
Lochinver Larden Venison and Cranberry Pie: Based on the famous pie from Lochinver Larder in the Scottish Highlands, cranberry sauce gets mixed into the venison filling with extra served alongside.
Down-East Cranberry Apple Pie: This award-winning pie from the Kennebunk Inn in Maine combines cranberry sauce and apple pie into one delicious bite.
Frozen Cranberries with Hot Caramel Sauce and Rye-Almond Spice Cookies: Inspired by a bowl of frozen lingonberries she ate in Finland, Joanna Pruess pairs frozen chopped cranberries with a hot caramel drizzle you can enjoy all year round.
Cranberry Upside-Down Cake with Lemon & Ginger: Designed specifically for frozen berries, this recipe pairs ginger, lemon and vanilla for a gorgeous holiday centerpiece.
Cranberry Streusel Bars: A jammy layer of cardamom-laced cranberries forms the base of this vegan take on crumble bars.
Cranberry, Caramel, and Almond Tart: Created by Maury Rubin, of New York City’s much missed City Bakery, these tarts are a favorite of Deb Perlman at Smitten Kitchen, who declared them one of the top 5 things she’d ever eaten.
Cranberry Margarita: A velvety cranberry puree dresses up this otherwise summery drink for the holidays. The frosted cranberry swizzle sticks make them extra special.
Cranberry Sorbet: Tessa Kiros likes to serve this with a shot of vodka, but I think scoops in a champagne flute with Processo would be just as delicious.
Cranberry-Raspberry Tart Pastiche: Cranberries are cooked in a raspberry puree until they glisten like jewels to top this vanilla custard tart.
Dried cranberries are accessible year-round and bring color and tartness without added moisture, making them perfect candidates for baking. When shopping, look for varieties that have no added sugar. These will have the most cranberry-forward flavor and be more versatile in different applications. Depending on the recipe, rehydrating the cranberries in liquid (like hot water or liquor) will soften their concentrated tartness and introduce new flavors. Here are some fun ideas for using them:
Warm Kale Salad with Apples and Dried Cranberries: The berries plump in hot cinnamon butter as the apples get tender for this warm salad.
Cranberry, Clementine & White Chocolate Scones: A classic flavor combination that uses cranberries inside the scone and on top with the white chocolate drizzle.
Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Salsify, Carrots, Chickpeas and Cranberries: Dried cranberries get rehydrated in the pan while you make the sauce, absorbing the pork flavor.
Wintry Cranberry Meringue Roulade: Rum-soaked dried cranberries get folded into the creamy filling, while the rest get blitzed in a food processor to dust over the snowy-white exterior.
Dark Chocolate, Cranberry & Coconut Flapjack: This decadent take on a British classic is packed with cranberries and coconut, then taken over the top with a dip in dark chocolate.
As peak cranberry season arrives, I’ll probably make a few from this list alongside some of my favorites like Cory Schreiber’s cranberry buckle with a crumb topping and Lan Lam’s gloriously regal cranberry curd tart with sweet almond crust. But at the end of the day, nothing heralds the arrival of the holidays for me quite like the smell of a cranberry sauce burbling away on the stove. I’ve slowly been building my own recipe over the last ten years, borrowing bits and pieces from others along the way, and while it’s very good, it’s still not perfect. Each year sees little tweaks – sometimes there’s a little more sugar or a quill of cinnamon standing in for ground. Some years it flows like soup and others it’s thick and spreadable like marmalade. It may never be “finished” and honestly, when the journey is this delicious, that doesn’t bother me one bit.
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