Although I’ve had many cranberry sauces in my food-wandering days, I am partial to cooked ones that exploit cranberries’ best qualities: an abundance of tannic red-fruit tartness and pectin that releases when the fruit softens to form a thick, jammy sauce. My two favorite cooked cranberry sauce recipes are here: one as simple as can be, the other slightly more complex, and more versatile.

Cranberry Walnut Conserve/Spoon Sweet

In college I learned about the wonders of Pennsylvania Dutch and Mennonite cooking from my friend David Smith, a big,hungry artist known for cooking up stupendous meals at of the dribs and drabs (ie ‘nothing’) in his student pauper’s pantry. When I asked him for a cookbook I could use as a reference, he directed me to the marvelous, out-of-print-but-findable Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter. All the recipes in the book bore the name of their creator. I have been making the Cranberry Walnut Conserve recipe by Mrs. Fannie Wought of Cullom, Illinois for over twenty years.

Cranberries, whole oranges thinly sliced, raisins and walnuts cook into a thick, chunky, immensely satisfying, tart, just-sweet-enough conserve, akin to what Greek’s call a “spoon sweet”.

The conserve is delicious with roast turkey, chicken and pork, even cheddar cheese. I like it best on its own, eaten with a spoon as a midnight snack. I could see it used as a fruit in a turnover. Around the holidays, I make big batches of this conserve and pack it into jars to give as gifts. (It will keep for up to a month in a covered container in the refrigerator.)

Makes about 2 quarts

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) walnuts
3 navel oranges, well washed
6 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (two 12-ounce packages)
2/3 cup wildflower honey, or sugar, or more to taste
1 ½ cups hot water
1 1/4 cups dark raisins or currents
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, as necessary

Preheat the oven to 375.  Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and roast until they are fragrant, about 9 minutes.  Set aside to cool. (Note: If you’re in a hurry, skip this step and use walnuts as is (though you can roast them while you make the conserve).

With a sharp knife, cut the ends off the oranges and discard; slice the oranges lengthwise, in quarters through the stem. Slice each quarter crosswise into very thin slices, discarding the seeds as you work.

In a large, heavy nonreactive saucepan, combine 4 cups of the cranberries, the oranges, honey and water, and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Reduce the heat to moderate and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened and the cranberries are soft, about 15 minutes. Stir in the raisins and the remaining 1 cup cranberries and cook until the raisins are plump, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool.

Chop the walnuts coarsely and stir them into the conserve, along with the lemon juice if needed to bring out the flavors. Transfer the conserve to clean dry jars, cover and refrigerate.

Simple Cranberry Sauce with Improvisations

I find that using reduced red wine instead of water deepens the red-fruit tannin-flavors of cranberries. This sauce is still good made with just water, as simple as you can get. As easy as this sauce is to make, it is WAY better than canned. If you want to get jazzy, you can always add spices with the sugar.  A pinch of salt does interesting things.

1 cup red wine, or 1/2 cup water
A few tablespoons sugar + more to taste
One 12-ounce  package cranberries
A tablespoons or so finely slivered lemon, orange or Meyer Lemon zest (optional)

If using wine, add to a medium saucepan; bring to a boil and reduce to about half (If using water, add to a saucepan and bring to a simmer).  Add a few tablespoons sugar and stir to dissolve. Add  cranberries, cover, turn the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries are tender (you’ll hear them pop as they burst). Add more sugar to taste and stir until dissolved. Remove the lid and stir until the sauce achieves the thickness you like.  If you like, stir in a tablespoon or so of finely slivered lemon, orange or Meyer lemon zest.  Store in a sealed jar in the fridge, then serve at room temperature.

Top photo by Beatriz de Costa

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