It was over cranberries that I realized, for the first time in my life (and it wasn’t even that long ago), that I might be irritating to my mother.
Most of the time we got along famously, but one Thanksgiving eve, when we were in hour 75 of what had already been a marathon of preparations for the holiday, and I began to instruct my mom on how to make cranberry sauce, it dawned on me that my newfound “expertise” in the food arena might not always go over well with everyone.
“What I usually do,” I told her, conveniently slouched and resting on one of the kitchen chairs as she headed for the stove to tend to the beginnings of her homemade cranberry sauce, “Is zest a whole orange into the sauce and put the juice from the orange in, too.”
She stopped and turned her head slowly in my direction, her eyes slits, heavy from fatigue, and if looks could kill…well, you get the picture.
She had every right to want to zest my face. It was her, after all, whom I credit for being the first among our small family circle to step beyond the confines of the can and make cranberry sauce from scratch with fresh berries herself. It was one of her favorite parts of the Thanksgiving feast, and while I had come to make it myself in my own fashion, she had hers down to a “T” and just to her liking.
We laughed many times in the following years about our weary cranberry near come-to-blows. And we continued making our own cranberry sauce. It’s how my Thanksgiving holiday begins. Usually, a few days before, I’ve purchased my bags of the fresh ruby berries and in a ceremonial manner, I set to making the sauce, even before I’ve begun my pie crust or thawed my turkey.
It’s so easy — every time I make it, I wonder why many (most) people don’t. Fresh berries, water or juice (for more flavor), lemon and/or orange zest, sugar or sweetener and other added elements like chopped apple or a pinch of cinnamon…the sauce can be customized to any taste. And then, the most merry part, as the berries begin to cook, that delightful popping as they burst, releasing a fragrance of tartness to bring holiday aromatherapy to the kitchen. Soon, they have stewed to a compote-like thickness, ready to be cooled and stored in the fridge.
Early on, when I was a child, the cranberry sauce was usually canned, and it didn’t make a hill of difference to me, who avoided its potent bitterness with a fury. There was, of course, everything else at the Thanksgiving dinner one could eat. I grew to enjoy the canned version (and continue to pick it up in a pinch if I’m craving some cranberry sauce off-season), but making it myself as an adult took it to a whole other level. Come Thanksgiving, I begin to crave its jeweled beauty and sweet-tart tang that so perfectly complements the salty merits of turkey and dressing.
The contention around cranberry sauce remains in many families every holiday season, however. Some detest it so much they would rather it didn’t make an appearance on the buffet table at all. For others, it must be the canned version, scooted out to hold its cylindrical shape and iconic ridges and left that way — or cut into thick slices — in a small serving bowl.
But in the fall, with bags of fresh cranberries usually everywhere you turn, let me do my best to convince those who have never attempted to make their own cranberry sauce that this is the Thanksgiving to do so. And here are some reasons why:
It’s quick. Within a half-hour, the cranberries can be rinsed, cooked and sauced.
It’s simple. Besides cranberries, you need just a few other ingredients (sugar or sweetener, water or juice) for the most basic cranberry sauce.
It’s creatively customizable. You have a say in the amount of sugar or sweetening equivalent for your own cranberry sauce and can jazz it up with other flavors to your liking. Try adding chopped crisp apple or pear or even pineapple, grated fresh ginger, walnuts or pecans or even dried cranberries for another layer of berry taste and texture. Use juice for your liquid, such as orange and lemon, apple juice or apple cider, cranberry or pomegranate juice.
It can be made ahead and is a versatile, long-lasting leftover. Homemade cranberry sauce can be made several days before Thanksgiving, which will make you feel ahead of the game. If you need ways to use up leftover cranberry sauce, try it mixed into yogurt or in oatmeal or on top of pancakes or English muffins. Use it to adorn melted brie. Swirl it into muffins or other quick breads.
Or you can do what I usually do (for whatever that’s worth), and ladle it on as a sweet condiment in a leftover turkey-and-stuffing sandwich.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Homemade Cranberry Sauce Recipe