Of all the holidays in the year, Thanksgiving is by far my favorite. Yes, it started on a sour note (read: colonialism and smallpox) but I like what it has become. Or, rather, what it had become before Black Friday started creeping up to 5PM on Thursday. Okay so, realistically I liked Thanksgiving circa 1990-2005. But the best part of Thanksgiving hasn't changed for decades: cranberries. Sauce, jelly, dried, candied, juice, stuffing... hell, I've even eaten them raw (don't try this at home!). My family's best Thanksgiving story is that cranberries are the reason I learned the word "condiment" at a very young age. Without being told otherwise, I assumed that cranberry sauce was a side dish- just like the green bean casserole or sweet potatoes- and I gained a reputation for eating it by the spoonful until I was finally intervened upon by my horrified relatives.
To be honest, I'm still not convinced they're right. Cranberry sauce (or jelly, I guess, but I'm more partial to the textured version) has all the elements that should make it a side dish in its own right. It's sweet, it's tart, it's gooey, it's full of color and vibrancy, and it's good for you to boot (other than the added sugar). Best of all, it's devilishly simple to make! I was about 15 years old when I first learned that cranberry sauce didn't have to come out of a can, and it changed my whole world. It was one of the first things I ever taught myself to cook, and I've been refining my recipe since then, adding and subtracting things along the way. To this day, I'm still baffled by anyone who buys pre-made cranberry sauce or jelly; it's banned from my table, and on more than one occasion I've held an impromptu cooking lesson in a friend's kitchen on Thanksgiving morning just to prove my point. Without further ado:
- 12 oz fresh Cranberries (not frozen)
- 1/2 cup sugar (plain old granulated, white sugar is best, but theoretically you can play with this ingredient for diabetic/keto/paleo individuals)
- 1 Orange
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup apple juice/cider
- Dash salt (optional)
To start, rinse the cranberries under cold water and sort them. Any that are wrinkled, bruised, or broken should be removed. No need to shake too thoroughly or attempt to remove excess moisture.
Meanwhile, bring a pan to medium-high heat, which equates to a 5-6 out of 10 on my electric stove, but you know your equipment best.
As soon as your pan is hot, add the berries and stir. They should begin to pop within a couple of minutes. If they don't, turn up your heat slightly.
Simmer for 5-7 minutes, stirring regularly until the majority of the berries pop and split, and begin to soften. If they stick to the pan, don't panic! You can either jump to the next step early, or sprinkle some water in.
Maintain heat and add the white wine, continually stirring. Allow the alcohol to burn off, then cook the mixture at a slightly reduced temperature (3-4 for my burners) for about 10-ish minutes until the sauce thickens. This step is the most recent addition to the recipe, and came into the mix earlier this year when I was struggling for a way to rehydrate dried cranberries without compromising their vibrant flavor. The reduced wine adds a layer of richness to the sauce.
The next step is to add the apple juice, and cook down until it just starts to thicken again. Unfortunately I have failed to provide visual evidence of that step in this recipe because lately we've been getting pure Honey Crisp Cider in at my local farmer's market, and while I was adding it to my sauce, I was also busy pouring myself a cup. Mmmmm, cider.
Before it reduces too much further, but once the cider has had a chance to warm fully, add the sugar and stir to dissolve. 1/2 cup is a good starting point, but I personally prefer mine a bit sweeter than that. If you prefer a tart sauce, taste after the addition of 1/4 cup of sugar, and then add the remaining 1/4 cup (or more!) to your personal preference. In general, taste your food often so that you can adjust your seasoning appropriately.
At this point, it should look perfectly ready to eat. The berries should be soft and smushy, the sauce should be sticking to the sides of the pan, and your mouth should be watering. You're not quite there yet, though! Before you start licking the spatula, add in the juice of 1 medium orange and about 1/2 tsp orange zest. These ingredients should be added to taste (are you picking up on a trend yet?) and can also be combined with small, finely chopped orange segments if so desired. Cook another 5-7 minutes until it achieves the right consistency, then taste for balance and add salt if necessary.
To finish, stir in a sprinkle of cinnamon to taste (in my experience, no more than 1/2 tsp max, or it can start to overpower the whole thing). Honestly, most of this recipe is to-taste. You can stir in chopped almonds or pecans for texture, add a splash of vanilla with the wine for a truly sumptuous sauce, or substitute a lime for the orange if you prefer a bright, acidic version. Cranberry sauce is a subjective dish, and that's one of the things I love best about it. For example, even though I give instructions for addition of cinnamon above, and usually include it in my sauce, I left it out this year. I just wasn't feeling it.
Finally, the most important step: serve with a spoon and enjoy!