I forgot how fragrant cranberries are. I opened the bag in the picture above and was struck by a sweet but refreshing smell. It is a sweetness that belies reality, for the irony is that you can’t eat cranberries out of the bag unless you enjoy being convulsed into a teeth-grinding wince. Nature made them very tart.
But there they sit, every Thanksgiving, front and center, playing Ringo Starr to the turkey’s John Lennon. I, for one, have other things on my mind whilst gnawing on my drumstick, but folks’ expectations being what they are, you simply can’t serve turkey without cranberry sauce. It simply isn’t done (he sniffed haughtily.)
I’m not sure how many people bother to make their own cranberry sauce for the holiday, but if you’re just buying any ol’ pre-made cranberry sauce, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to be creative and to bring some individuality to your Thanksgiving table. Have I made the sale yet? No? Then, let me add that cranberry sauce is simple to make and you can—and should—make it a day or two ahead. (Sold!)
Here’s a related story with a tragic ending. (Have that box of Kleenex close at hand.) I have a friend who comes from a large family. Their default Thanksgiving dinner is a collaborative effort where people are assigned a portion of the meal to prepare.
A couple of years ago my friend was assigned cranberry sauce and decided to be creative. He carefully researched recipes, and asked advice from his friends who have logged kitchen time. The resulting recipe was a simple whole berry sauce sweetened with orange juice and perfumed with orange zest. His family’s reaction? Grab that Kleenex: they hated it. To be fair, they were used to the jelly-from-a-can sauce, and found my friend’s creation a bit overpowering.
So I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll get creative, but I will also include directions to make something close to jelly-from-a-can sauce, but with a touch of complexity. (No ridges from the can though, sorry. Someone’s bound to miss those. Tough noogies.)
The Ocean Spray cranberries I bought have a basic recipe printed on the back of the bag; that will be my launching pad. Hint: this is a bit subversive, for you will shortly be receiving a lesson in basic jam-making. Don’t worry, there will not a final exam.
My first addition to the bag recipe will be a cup of chopped apple. The apple is a big ally here because it adds sugar to counter the cranberries’ tartness, and pectin which will help the cooked berries jell a bit. (No one likes runny cranberry sauce.) Dice the apple into fairly small chunks, but don’t worry about technique because the apple will cook down and disappear.
Addition number two is the seeds from half of a vanilla bean. Vanilla extract really won’t work here; we’re going for that custardy-floral note that only the seeds can lend the sauce. The apple gives the sauce body, but the vanilla with its round tones gives body to the flavor of the sauce.
Addition numbers three and four are a tribute to my friend’s attempt at cranberry sauce for his family meal: orange zest, and a tablespoon of frozen concentrated orange juice. These will give the sauce the citrusy zing that counteracts the hammered-down gaminess of the average turkey.
Now if you want to get really silly here, we can add two cloves and or a half stick of cinnamon. Be stingy with these ingredients; we just want a note or two, not the whole concerto. Keep your audience in mind.
Speaking of audience: if your turkey dinner will be an adults only affair, consider adding a thimbleful (let’s say a tablespoon) of brandy or calvados. The alcohol will (mostly) cook off, and you be left with some rather earthy, smoky tones that will work well with your Turkey’s lean roasted flavors—not to mention the sage that is likely in the stuffing.
This year I’ll be adding about a half cup of chopped walnuts just before I remove the berries from the heat. The walnuts will absorb some of the sweetness of the sugars while adding their own meaty, crunchy character.
If you’ve got your heart set on adding some of these flavors but remain a fan of the jelly-in-a can, then omit the orange zest and juice, cook the berries as directed, then strain the whole thing through a sieve before allowing it to cool and set.
If you really miss the ridges from the can you can always pour your home-made jelly into a clean can and let it set there.
Honestly who’s gonna do that?
Here’s the basic cranberry sauce recipe. I recommend reducing the sugar to no more than one half cup if you’re using the apple and orange juice.
Ocean Spray Whole Berry Recipe – Makes 1 cup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 x 12 oz bag of cranberries
Bring water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add cranberries and return to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour sauce into a bowl, cover and cool completely at room temperature. Refrigerate until serving time.
1 cup chopped apple
Seeds from one half a vanilla bean
Zest of one half an orange
1 tbsp frozen concentrated orange juice
1 or 2 cloves
Half stick of cinnamon
1 tbsp brandy or calvados
½ cup chopped walnuts (add just before removing from heat.)
Keep these other Thanksgiving recipes in mind:
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