Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cranberry Sauce

You know what I love about cranberries? Dang near everything. A good place to start is the classic cranberry sauce. Actually, my version is more like a compote, or maybe preserves. It's not like like the stuff you serve in the shape of the can. Not that there's anything wrong with the canned jelly stuff. I grew up with it, and I still like it. But there's so much more than you can do with a good cranberry compote. Let's take a look at the following ingredients:

12 oz cranberries
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cup water

Technically, this is all you really need to make cranberry sauce. It's a simple thing. But it's kind of on the boring side, isn't it? For instance, I would never just use water. I mean, it does satisfy the physical requirements. We need something for the cranberries to boil in. But I'm the sort that has a hard time cooking with just water in general, because it adds nothing in the way of flavor. Sometimes I think it's a fault of mine. But not this time. And while we're talking about flavor, why would we just use plain old white sugar? Boring. Let's make some changes to our ingredient list:

12 oz cranberries
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup real maple syrup
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup ginger ale

This ups the ante a little, doesn't it? Cranberry is still the star of the show. But we've added some supporting actors to help out. The dark brown sugar deepens the flavor a little bit, while the maple syrup adds a little New England touch. I left the granulated sugar in to make sure we don't go too overboard. We've added a little bit of a balance to the cranberries with the orange juice, which not only adds to the fruitiness, but also accents the zing from the cranberries. The ginger ale adds a little spice to kind of bring it all together. If you want, you can even add a pinch of salt to the mix. But the ginger ale will add a tiny amount, and I don't think you need a whole lot more.

Cooking this is pretty easy too. Dump it all in a saucepan, bring it to a boil, drop it to a simmer, and keep an eye on it. I'm serious! That ginger ale still has carbonation, and it likes to fizz. All that heat is going to do is make it angry, and it will attempt to boil over the side. Don't let it. If it gets too close to the top, take it off the heat until it settles down. You're going to need to do this until it stops fizzing up. After a while, it will settle down and bubble a little. You're still stirring too, right? Well, you don't need to stir constantly, but the stuff on the bottom is going to get pretty hot, so you want to move things around on occassion to keep the bottom from burning.

After a while, you'll hear the cranberries start to pop. They have a good bit of moisture trapped inside, and you're turning each little cranberry into its own little ball of pressure. Don't worry, the popping won't hurt you unless you stand right over the pot and watch. That might be a little close. When the popping stops, you can pull out your trusty immersion blender and give it a whir if you like. If you want to get rid of the seeds and skins, you can even strain it when it's done cooking. You might want to do it while it's still warm, though.

How long do you cook it? Well, normally I would tell you to reduce it down to the desired consistency. Do that with this stuff and you may end up a pretty unhappy camper. Cranberries are loaded with pectin, and that stuff thickens as it cools. In fact, when I cook mine down, I make sure it's a little viscous, but still pourable. Move it off the heat and let it cool.

You may notice a skin forming on top. Don't worry about it, it's just from the fruit. When it's totally cooled, you can give it a stir and the skin won't really come back. It will be pretty gelled though, like preserves. And what can you do with it? What can't you do with it? Imagine this: a couple of nice, flavorful slices of sourdough bread, some romaine lettuce, a couple of slices of turkey (I like peppered turkey), a couple of nice, thick slabs of bacon, and a nice layer of cranberry sauce on the top slice of bread. Oh man. I've even added a couple of tablespoons of mustard to the sauce while it's cooking, to make cranberry mustard. Also good on a turkey sandwich. But the key to mustard is, the longer it sits, the better it tastes. Just don't let it sit for too long. A week or two is probably enough.

I've also used this stuff as a filling for pastries (without the mustard). In fact, use it for anything that you would use jam or preserves for. It has both savory and sweet aplications. I've served a thinner version before as a dipping sauce for Thanksgiving turkey. You're only limited by your own imagination.

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