When I was growing up, cranberries came in the form of a wobbly cylinder of jelly straight from the can, with ridged indentations on the side.

Though cranberries were once strictly Thanksgiving fare, I now look forward to the tongue-tingling zing and relish the popping sound of fresh berries year-round. The season for fresh cranberries is a short one, which is why I keep a stash in my freezer so I can use them on a whim.

Cranberries complement sweet and savory foods. Jellied sauces, relishes and chutneys are traditional with turkey and pork. The tart berry requires a large amount of sugar, which makes it a great addition to baked goods such as cobblers, crumbles and cakes. Cranberries are increasingly used to flavor beverages, including smoothies, floats, champagne cocktails and mimosas.

Flavors that pair well include ginger, cloves, oranges, apples, pears, jammy wines and even smoky chipotles.

Availability: Cranberry season is short, so the time to stock up is now. Fresh cranberries are available in stores from October through December. Look for fresh berries in the produce section. Cranberries may also be available in the frozen foods aisle.

Selection and storage: How do you know if a cranberry is really ripe? Cranberries were also known as "bounce berries," and in olden days one test of ripeness was to throw a batch down the stairs to see if they bounced.

Fresh cranberries are typically sold in 12-ounce plastic bags. Discard any stems and berries that are brown or shriveled. There is no need to discard white cranberries, which are actually sweeter than red ones.

Cranberries can be refrigerated for at least two months or frozen for up to a year. It is not necessary to defrost cranberries before using; wash in a colander and pat berries dry.

One (12-ounce) bag of berries equals 3 cups, 2 1/2 cups finely chopped berries or 4 cups sauce.

Preparation: Cranberries need no preparation before use.

The addition of 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda counters some of the cranberry's natural acidity, reducing the amount of added sugar required.

To prevent boil-overs, add 1 teaspoon vegetable oil per 12-ounce bag of cranberries; cook only until they begin to pop: longer cooking times make the berries bitter.

Nutritional value: Fresh cranberries are very high in vitamin C and cancer-fighting antioxidants. They also contain tannins that may promote urinary tract health.

Fun facts: Cranberries are native to North America. Native Americans called them "i-bimi," which means "bitter berry," and pounded them into a paste they mixed with pemmican. The Colonists quickly adopted the berry and, before the advent of refrigeration, floated them in tubs of water to prolong freshness. Pies and tarts made from cranberries first appeared in Colonial records in 1672.

Sources: "The New Food Lover's Tiptionary," "Fine Cooking in Season," "Giving Thank: Thanksgiving Recipes and History From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie."


Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature (divided)

1 cup granulated sugar (divided)

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 3/4 cups fresh cranberries

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in center. Rub the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan with 2 tablespoons of the butter. In small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar with the cinnamon and allspice. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan; arrange the cranberries in a single layer on top.

With an electric mixer, cream the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla; beat until well combined. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk, until well combined.

Spoon the batter over the cranberries in the pan, and smooth the top. Place the pan on a baking sheet; bake the cake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake; invert onto a rimmed platter. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 299 calories (38 percent from fat), 13g total fat (8g saturated), 59mg cholesterol, 44g carbohydrates, 4g protein, 177mg sodium, 1g dietary fiber.

Source: "Everyday Food: Great Food Fast" (from Martha Stewart Living)

Cranberry-Orange Fruit Bars


1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds or hazelnuts) (divided)

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Fruit filling:

3 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen)

1/2 cup orange juice

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

2 cups cranberries, uncooked

2 cups orange segments

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To prepare the crust: Combine 3/4 cup nuts, flours, sugar and salt in a food processor; pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Add butter; pulse until well incorporated.

Whisk egg, oil, vanilla and almond extracts in a small bowl. With the motor running, add the mixture to the food processor. Process, then pulse, scraping down the sides if necessary, until the mixture begins to clump, 30 to 45 seconds. Measure out 1/2 cup of the mixture and combine in a bowl with the remaining 1/4 cup chopped nuts. Set aside for the topping.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Generously coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

To prepare the fruit filling and assemble bars: Combine 3 cups cranberries, orange juice, sugar and cornstarch in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture is very thick, 4 to 5 minutes. (It may take up to 10 minutes to get a thick result if you start with frozen fruit.) Stir in 2 cups cranberries, orange segments, orange zest and vanilla.

Transfer the dough to the prepared baking dish. Spread evenly and press firmly into the bottom to form a crust. Spread the fruit filling over the crust. Sprinkle the reserved topping over the filling.

Bake the bars for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake until the crust and topping are lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes more. Let cool completely before cutting into bars, at least 1 1/2 hours.

Makes 18 bars.

Per bar: 190 calories (39 percent from fat), 8g total fat (2g saturated), 19mg cholesterol, 27g carbohydrates, 3g protein, 64mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber.

Source: "The Simple Art of Eating Well Cookbook," Jessie Price and the Eating Well Test Kitchen