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Tinned cranberry sauce has nostalgic appeal, but making your own opens up new flavour options

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Cranberry sauce can be made ahead, freeing up time and space on the big day. It’s an effortless, uncomplicated, satisfying process.

MATTHEW MEAD / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Cranberry sauce can be made ahead, freeing up time and space on the big day. It’s an effortless, uncomplicated, satisfying process.

I love Thanksgiving dinner, but putting it all together can be a challenge. With my small kitchen, standard oven and four burners, I find making the annual feast often feels less like cooking and more like a complicated logistical exercise.

My first turkey was a terrifying prospect. I handled the raw bird as if it were nuclear waste, repeatedly scrubbing down the surfaces of my kitchen as I buttered, trussed and wrassled the thing into a roasting pan. Cooking the turkey was almost as scary. It seemed to sit in the oven, pale and goose-pimply, for two hours, taunting me with the idea that it couldn't possibly be done before midnight. Then it suddenly accelerated, threatening to immediately over-brown while I scrambled around trying to finish the vegetables.

After some trial and error, my Thanksgivings are now (generally) crisis-free. I have figured out turkeys, mastered mashed potatoes and found the perfect cornbread stuffing recipe. I have made friends with brussels sprouts. I have even, after a few disastrous years, managed to pull off a decent gravy and bake pumpkin and pecan pies that are almost as tasty as my mother's and mother-in-law's (which is saying something).

Looking back on those early kitchen marathons, I can understand why I've always had a soft spot for cranberry sauce. It was the one dish that was actually easier than I thought it would be -- ridiculously easy, in fact, in a fast, friendly, reassuring way. If Thanksgiving dinner seemed a little daunting, cranberry sauce was a huge confidence-booster.

First of all, cranberry sauce can be made ahead, freeing up time and space on the big day. It's an effortless, uncomplicated, satisfying process; I love the pop, pop, popping sound of the bursting berries. And the payoff is huge -- rich, ruby colour and fresh, bright taste.

I know people who swear by the canned version. They get nostalgic seeing that cranberry-coloured cylinder wobbling on the plate, still bearing the seamed imprints of the tin. But making your own cranberry sauce opens up a whole range of flavour possibilities.

The basic recipe for cranberry sauce involves cranberries, liquid and sweetener. After that, you can freestyle a little, adding fresh citrus or dried fruit, chilies or nuts, a range of spices, even a splash of booze. (Brandy, bourbon or orange-scented liqueurs like Cointreau or Grand Marnier all make good additions.)

This year, I've experimented with three kinds of cranberry sauce. The first is a variation on the classic, warmed with maple syrup and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. The second is a chutney, which takes the cranberries in a savoury direction with the addition of apple cider vinegar, shallots and lots of cracked black pepper. The last is a relish, which uses chopped raw cranberries. I had seen recipes like this for years but resisted, wondering how raw cranberries would possibly work. Not only do they work brilliantly, this recipe is even faster and easier than the cooked versions. You just throw everything into the food processor, pulse a few times, and then let the mixture macerate for an hour or two.

 

When working with cranberries, make sure to wash them and pick them over, discarding any berries that are shrivelled, mushy or mouldy. Once you start cooking, the only conceivable hitch is getting the mixture to thicken. You might be tempted to cut the sugar to get a tarter result, but you do need a minimum amount for the sauce to gel. You also need to cook the cranberries long enough so that they burst and release their pectin. Keep in mind that the sauce will firm up a little more as it cools.

One batch of any of these recipes, made with the standard 340-gram bag of cranberries, will probably be enough for the big night. At our house, though, we need even more for leftovers -- served on the side of some sliced cold turkey, or mixed with mayo, for turkey sandwiches.

Happy Thanksgiving, however you cook, however you celebrate, and whatever you're thankful for. This year I'm grateful for many things, cranberry sauce being just the first thing on a very long list.

 

Classic cranberry sauce

1 x 340 g bag (12 oz or 3 cups) cranberries, washed and picked over

125 ml (1/2 cup) pure maple syrup (not pancake syrup)

45 ml (3 tbsp) firmly packed brown sugar

2 x 7.5 cm (3 in) cinnamon sticks

6 whole cloves

Pinch nutmeg

125 ml (1/2 cup) water

30 ml (2 tbsp) brandy (optional)

 

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, combine cranberries, maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and water. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, or until cranberries have burst and the mixture has thickened. Discard cinnamon sticks. Stir in brandy, if using. Cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Serve at room temperature.

 

Tester's notes: The maple syrup adds a good Canadian touch. You could also use ground spices by substituting 5 ml (1 tsp) cinnamon and 1 ml (1/4 tsp) cloves.

 

Cranberry chutney with shallots and pepper

20 ml (4 tsp) unsalted butter

125 ml (1/2 cup or about 85 g) finely chopped shallots

1 x 340 g bag (12 oz or 3 cups) cranberries, washed and picked over

175 ml (3/4 cup) granulated sugar

125 ml (1/2 cup) water

30 ml (2 tbsp) apple cider vinegar

3-5 ml (3/4-1 tsp) cracked black pepper

1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and cook shallots, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add cranberries, sugar, water, vinegar and cook, stirring occasionally, until cranberries have burst and mixture has thickened, about 10-15 minutes. Season to taste with pepper and salt. Cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Serve at room temperature.

 

Tester's notes: The shallot flavour really comes through and the pepper adds some heat. This chutney might win over those sceptics who think regular cranberry sauce is too sweet and fruity to be putting on meat.

 

Cranberry and orange relish

1 navel orange

1 x 340g bag (12 oz or 3 cups) cranberries, washed and picked over

125 ml (1/2 cup) granulated sugar

1 ml (1/4 tsp) cardamom

 

Finely grate zest from orange. Cut away peel and pith and cut orange sections away from their membranes. Combine zest, orange sections, cranberries, sugar and cardamom in a food processor and process with a series of quick pulses until mixture is finely chopped but not mushy. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days to allow flavours to blend.

Tester's notes: I loved this recipe, which has a very crisp, clear taste and texture. Be sure to use the "pulse" feature so you don't over-process the berries. You want a very finely chopped relish, not a puree.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2013 C1

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Updated on Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 6:27 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

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