Of all the essential ingredients of a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, fresh cranberries are among the most fleeting. Cravings for turkey, stuffing and gravy can be addressed all year long, but the puckery pop of fresh cranberries is limited to their fall season.
Yes, you can get frozen berries anytime, but they lose precious tanginess in the process. All the more reason, then, to engage in a wanton cranberry spree around Thanksgiving.
Cranberry sauces are the standard, of course, though what specifically "standard" means will differ from table to table. Tastes etched in childhood are not easily set aside, which explains why it's not unusual to see, as part of the official Thanksgiving table setting, a piece of fine china bearing a perfectly can-shaped cylinder of glistening cranberry gel.
By all means honor the standards of your household, but consider adding a wrinkle – if not at Thanksgiving dinner, then around it.
Why not start with a cranberry cocktail? Muddle cranberries with lime and orange and a bit of brown sugar for a pilgrim's version of the caipirinha. The Brazilian drink is made with cachaca, a sugarcane liquor with a touch of smokiness. (White rum with a dash of tequila makes a capable substitute.)
The truth about cranberry sauce is you don't really need a recipe. Put fresh cranberries in a pot, add a little flavorful liquid or just water, and as much sugar or other sweetener as you like. Cook until the berries pop. If you want it to thicken, wait until it cools.
If you want to try something new, consider a sauce made with pear and brandy, and the toasty crunch of walnuts.
Besides the pumpkin pie, consider a cranberry upside-down cake, which balances the cranberry's tartness with a brown sugar walnut caramel. You do have to cut a circle of parchment paper to make sure it leaves the pan cleanly, but it's worth it to show off the creamy cake shot through with vivid streaks of crimson.
Or just skip the paperwork and bake it in a pie plate, as the original did. Either way, its aromatic flavors of orange peel and cinnamon, and balanced sweet-and-sour character will bring diners back for more.
Another dessert idea is crumb-topped cranberry cookie bars, infused with mulling spices.
Remember when using fresh cranberries to pick through them first, removing stems and wilted specimens. If you buy more than you can use in a week or two, throw them in the freezer, where they'll remain usable for a few months.
> Cranberry Right-Side-Up Cake
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 to 3 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg ? or allspice
3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, ? melted
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup sour cream
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter an 8- or 9-inch round pan and line with parchment paper. (If not planning to flip cake, butter a 10-inch pie plate.)
Combine the cranberries, brown sugar, orange zest, cinnamon and walnuts in a bowl, then spread the mixture out evenly in the plate.
Whisk the eggs together in a mixing bowl. Beat in the butter, sugar, vanilla and sour cream until blended. Gradually stir in the flour and mix until smooth. Pour evenly over the cranberries in the pie plate.
Bake for about 1 hour, until the cake is just firm and browned on top. Let cool at least 20 minutes. Then, turn out onto a cake plate so the fruit is on top.
Peel off paper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or heavy cream, as desired.
(From Julia Moskin and Kim Severson's "Cookfight," refined by Laurie Colwin from a recipe in Sarah Leah Chase's "Cold-Weather Cooking.")
> Cranberry Caipirinha
1 or 2 lime wedges (to taste)
1 small orange wedge
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 and 1/2 ounces aged cachaça ? (or 1 ounce white rum and ? 1/2 ounce white tequila)
Place the lime, orange and cranberries in a cocktail shaker. Add the sugar and muddle with the fruit.
Fill a rocks glass with cracked ice and transfer the ice to the cocktail shaker. Add the lime juice and the cachaça, and shake well.
Pour everything, including all the muddled fruit from the shaker, into the rocks glass, and serve.
(From Ideya Latino Bistro in New York City, via Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld's "In Season," Blue Rider Press.)
> Pear, Brandy and Walnut ?Cranberry Sauce
1/3 cup, plus 2-3 tablespoons ? brandy, divided
2 cinnamon sticks, each broken ? in half
8 black peppercorns
12 ounces fresh cranberries, ? picked over
3/4 cups packed light brown sugar
2 medium bartlett pears, peeled
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted ? and divided
Pour 1/3 cup brandy into liquid measuring cup; add enough water to reach 1/2 cup liquid total. Set aside. Place broken cinnamon sticks and peppercorns in center of small piece of cheesecloth or large tea bag and tie closed using kitchen twine. (If lacking cheesecloth, toss cinnamon sticks in, to remove later, and season with fresh ground black pepper before serving.)
In medium saucepot, combine cranberries, brown sugar and cinnamon-pepper bundle. Using large holes on a box grater, grate pears into saucepot. Stir in brandy-water mixture.
Over high heat, bring cranberry mixture to a boil; reduce heat to medium and cook 10-12 minutes, or until cranberries have burst and the mixture has combined, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.
Stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons brandy. Let cool. Remove and discard cinnamon bundle. Stir in 7 tablespoons toasted walnuts. Transfer mixture to small serving bowl; sprinkle with remaining walnuts.
> Cranberry Crumb Bars with ?Mulling Spices
3 cups (375 grams) ? all-purpose flour
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup unsalted butter (225 grams ? or 2 sticks), chilled
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ? orange zest
1 1/2 tablespoons (25 ml) orange juice
3 cups fresh cranberries (340 grams ? or 12-ounce bag)
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, and butter the sides and the parchment. In a large, widish bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and spices. With a pastry blender or fork, work the chilled butter and the egg into the flour mixture until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Pat half the crumb base into the bottom of your prepared pan; it will be thin.
In the bowl of a food processor or blender, briefly pulse the filling ingredients until the berries are coarsely chopped but not puréed. Spread the filling over the crumb base. Sprinkle the remaining crumbs evenly over the cranberry mixture.
Bake cookies for 30 to 35 minutes, or until lightly brown on top. Cool completely before cutting into squares.
(Excerpted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. Copyright © 2012 by Deb Perelman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.)