Come November, there are few foods that come to mind faster than a cranberry. If you think about it, it’s really an unusual fruit. Raw, it looks more like something a bird would eat. Cooked, it morphs into some sort of squishy, tart jelly without very much work at all – it’s almost as if the cranberries want to become a jam-like sauce.
Naturally, I will oblige. Cranberry sauce it is!
Now, typically I’m predisposed to consider an ingredient how my mother or father cooked it when I was growing up. Case in point: there is only one way to make an Italian spaghetti and meatball dinner (nothing beats the Doyle family spaghetti … nothing …), you really should only put salt and pepper on a chicken when roasting whole, a pork loin roast is seasoned and roasted upright in a pot with sauerkraut, and a tuna salad really only needs sliced scallions, salt, and pepper with the mayo. These are hard and fast rules, and I don’t like breaking them – much. Every Thanksgiving, my mom presents her cranberry-orange sauce (from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, I believe) in a cut crystal dish; it always tastes just as good as it did the year before, which is to say it is fabulous.
The day before Thanksgiving, she whirs a bag or two of whole, fresh cranberries with a sectioned whole orange (by whole I mean she literally cuts an orange in quarters – peel, pith, flesh, and all) and some granulated sugar in her food processor. That’s it. And it sits in a leftover container in the fridge all night long, chilling and mixing in dark, cold solitude. It may not seem like much, but come midday Thanksgiving that humble mixture has turned into some sort of fruity magic. The sugar has worked to macerate the orange and cranberries, softening the cell membranes and releasing their sweet, sweet juices. It’s not watery but it’s not crunchy, either – it’s something exactly in between, and I’ve never had anything even close to that. Which is why, really, it’s the perfect holiday cranberry sauce.
Which is also why, strangely, it’s almost untouchable. I feel like I can’t really recreate it in my kitchen – until I’m married and live in my own house from which I will host my own family Thanksgiving, probably serving her and my dad her wonderful dish – because it’s hers right now, not mine.
That, and I don’t have a food processor … and there is no way I’m chopping cranberries and oranges into little itty-bitty pieces!
Therefore, because I enjoy the cranberry’s eternal battle of sweet versus tart flavors – it’s like a culinary war in your mouth, isn’t it? – I decided I had to come up with a cranberry dish of my own. I made this cranberry sauce for the first time last fall, but the recipe, which I adapted from Nigella Lawson (whose delightful humor makes me want to try all of her dishes), was far too sweet for my liking; the sugariness almost covered up the actual cranberry notes. Today when I cooked this, I used just half the amount of sugar of last year’s batch to great success. The flavor war, it seems, is at a stalemate – however, this sauce is anything but stale. The brandy and orange are essential to giving the recipe depth. If you too are looking for a Thanksgiving cranberry sauce to call your own, give this a shot – I won’t mind….
Spiked cranberry-orange sauce
This recipe was inspired by Nigella Lawson’s “Redder Than Red Cranberry Sauce”. She’s so fabulous, she could persuade even an avowed cranberry-hater (if such an oddity could exist) to whip this up. I use far less sugar than she does – about half – but if you prefer a sweeter sauce, feel free to add more sugar; this will still turn out just fine.
- 1 bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and picked over (discard mushy berries)
- 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- juice from one orange
- zest from one orange
- 1/4 cup brandy (if you’re really slick, you can use Cointreau, but a brandy such as E&J VSOP is really fabulous here)
Combine everything into a saucepan and heat to medium-high. Once the mixture starts to bubble, lower the heat to just below medium and let the sauce reduce and thicken while the berries burst away. Stir occasionally. Remove the sauce from the heat when there’s still a fair bit of liquid but all the berries have burst open; the pectin in the fruit will continue to thicken the mixture while it cools.
Store the sauce in a tightly lidded glass jar; it will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, although I’m sure it won’t last that long. This is excellent on baked goods – scones, biscuits, tea breads, fruitcake, or English muffins – or atop sliced, roasted pork loins or turkey breasts.