Cranberry sauce has been one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving dinner for as long as I can remember. And by “cranberry sauce,” I mean the dark burgundy, vibrantly tart-sweet condiment made by cooking fresh cranberries with sugar. I do not mean the lump of pink, wiggly, high-fructose corn syrup-saturated, nutritionally vacant, pale imitation of cranberry sauce that comes in a can. My mom always made fresh cranberry sauce for our Thanksgivings, so thankfully, my taste buds never acclimated to that cloyingly sweet jellied variety. Cranberry sauce, from this opinionated cook’s perspective, should be tart because cranberries are tart. Period.
My mom’s, as far as I remember anyway, is super simple — cranberries and sugar, and that’s about it. Which I love so much that I often served myself what some people might consider a condiment in side dish proportions (and can still be found guilty of eating it by itself). But when I started making my own a few years ago, I wanted to tinker a bit, to dress up the traditional just a smidgen. Not enough to interfere with the pronounced cranberry flavor — cinnamon and cloves, I found, were too strong for my taste, as was ginger — but enough to make cranberries that were decidedly my own. I found Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’s version fit the bill (from the fabulous book, The Gift of Southern Cooking), so what you’ll find below is a slight adaptation of their recipe. There are many, many, many varieties of cranberry sauce out there, so find one that suits your taste. I like this one because it’s sweet enough, but true to the tart flavor of the berries, which are enhanced by the wine and orange zest but not overpowered.
If you’ve never made your own cranberry sauce, let me begin my saying how easy it is. Really. You put the berries, a little liquid, and a bit of sugar in a pot, and cook, stirring, until the berries begin to burst and the sugar dissolves. The natural pectin in the berries will give you the chunky, jam-like texture, and the whole process takes about 10 or 15 minutes. All that is required of you is to stir and taste to make sure you’ve achieved the sweet-sour ratio you like.
If you still need convincing, look at how pretty it is in a cut-glass dish. See? Don’t you want that on your table? Even if your dining companions just look at it, you’ll be glad you made it.
–Adapted from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock
The original recipe calls for port instead of marsala, and I tried that last year. To be honest, I made the substitution because I had marsala in my pantry (left over from this meal) and no port, but, as it turns out, I like it this way better. Marsala is a little sweeter, so I was able to reduce the sugar, and the wine’s subtle flavor slips under the berries quite nicely (the port is a little more robust). But, by all means, use what you have; I imagine any sweet fortified wine would do the trick.
12 ounces fresh cranberries (or about 3 cups)
1/2 cup marsala wine
2/3 cup sugar
zest from 1 large orange (about a tablespoon)
Rinse the berries, carefully picking through them and discarding any that have shriveled or burst. In a saucepan, bring the wine just to a boil over medium-high heat, and add the berries. Cook, stirring continuously, until the berries begin to pop (David loves this part), about 5 minutes. Pour in the sugar and orange zest, and continue to stir constantly until the sugar dissolves, about another 5 minutes. The mixture should be thick like jam. Remove from the heat until completely cool; cover and refrigerate. Before serving, allow the sauce to come to room temperature.