Cranberries provide splash of color, touch of tartness

  • While cranberries lack the sweetness and aroma of the growing season’s earlier berries, their versatility is what makes them special. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Serve this Cranberry-Maple Upside-Down Cake warm at a brunch, or offer it for dessert with whipped cream. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This Cranberry-Maple Upside-Down Cake gets its sweetness from brown sugar and maple syrup. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This sunshine-yellow pilaf dotted with crimson cranberries, and garnished with toasted pine nuts and fried onions, is terrific served with seared scallops or fried fish filets. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This sunshine-yellow pilaf dotted with crimson cranberries, and garnished with toasted pine nuts and fried onions, is terrific served with seared scallops or fried fish filets. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Recorder
Published: 12/25/2018 3:00:27 PM

Crimson cranberries taste as zingy as they look in holiday meals: in sweet pies and muffins and cakes, and in relishes and savory dishes, too.

Cranberries last longer than tender summer berries such as strawberries and raspberries because they contain their own natural preservative benzoic acid. Native Americans took advantage of this by mashing cranberries into meat from their autumn hunts to make pemmican, a sort of dry paté that would keep through the winter.

New England’s colonists learned much from Native American foodways, but they brought their own English traditions, too. One was to serve a fruit sauce with meat. Apple sauce was most common, but there were no apples here when the first colonists arrived in America, so they used the cranberries that still grow in southeast Massachusetts, right where they settled. Today, about half the country’s cranberries are grown in Massachusetts.

In 1672, John Josselyn, an English visitor to Massachusetts, praised cranberries as “excellent against the scurvy,” and generations of American sailors took barrels of cranberries on board to prevent the disease. The credit is due to the cranberry’s hoard of Vitamin C. Cranberries also have manganese and phytochemicals that provide an array of other nutritional and health benefits.

Despite these good things, the acidity and astringency that makes cranberries good with rich meats disqualifies them for eating out of hand. Josselyn called cranberry sauce “a delicate sauce, especially with mutton,” but was suspiciously noncommittal when he noted “Some make tarts with them.”

The rarity and price of sugar probably deterred most early colonists from baking with cranberries. Today with cheap sugar and other sweeteners, plus ready-sweetened dried cranberries and canned cranberry sauces, cranberries are staples of muffins and quickbreads as well as pies. But with our focus on sweet cranberry confections, we are probably less attuned to their use in savory dishes than our ancestors were, though their potential remains undimmed.

They are good with cheese, for example. Wensleydale with cranberries is wildly popular in England, and available in several local supermarkets. You can imitate it by mixing dried cranberries — and perhaps also chopped walnuts — into a favorite cream cheese.

Brie is another good cheese partner. To make an easy party munchie, top crackers with small portions or disks cut from a cylindrical brie, add dabs of cranberry sauce or chutney, and bake in a 350-degree oven for three minutes or until the brie is just melting.

Cranberries come at the end of our berry season. They lack the sweetness and aroma of earlier berries, yet their versatility makes them special. They make a bright seasonal topping for a cake, give an unusual tartness to red cabbage, add a sparkle to a pilaf and a gluten-free muffin, and partner with a buttery crust and sweet streusel to make a festive pie.

Then there’s their color. Crimson. So perfect for this time of year!

Pilaf with Cranberries, Onions and Pine Nuts

This sunshine-yellow pilaf dotted with crimson cranberries, and garnished with toasted pine nuts and fried onions, is terrific served with seared scallops or fried fish filets. It’s also good topped with vegetable mixtures such as sautéed peppers and eggplant. Leftovers reheat well in a microwave.


1½ cups basmati rice

¾ cup dried cranberries

2 medium large onions, peeled

2 T olive oil

2 T butter

1½ tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. salt

2 cardamom pods, crushed to reveal the seeds

1 bay leaf

¾ cup frozen peas

3 T pine nuts or chopped walnuts

1 T torn cilantro or parsley leaves, plus sprigs for garnish

Put the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water. Leave it for about 10 minutes, then drain through a sieve and rinse. Put the dried cranberries in a separate bowl and cover with water until needed.

Halve, then quarter the onions and slice them thinly. Heat the oil over moderate heat, put in the sliced onion, lower the heat and fry gently, stirring often for 25 minutes or until it is golden brown and tender.

While the onion is cooking, begin the pilaf by melting the butter in a saucepan over low heat. As soon as it is liquid, stir in the turmeric for 20 seconds, then add the rice and stir around the pan so it gets coated with butter. Pour in 3 cups of cold water, and add the salt, the bay leaf and the crushed cardamom pods.

Bring to the boil and cook briskly until most of the water has evaporated and the surface of the rice is pitted with holes (about 12 to 15 minutes). Drain the cranberries. Reserve a tablespoonful and stir the rest into the rice along with the peas.

Cover the pan with a tight lid, and set it in a warm place at the back of the stove or leave on the turned off burner for 10 minutes.

Return to the onions. When they are soft and lightly golden, stir in the pine nuts and continue cooking over low heat for about two minutes or so until both the onions and nuts are golden brown. Cover and keep warm.

For serving, fluff the pilaf with a fork, and fold in half the cilantro or parsley. Spread the pilaf on a shallow dish. Put the onions and pine nuts on top and fork them in a little, but don’t mix. Scatter on the reserved cranberries, then the remaining torn cilantro or parsley. Garnish with herb sprigs.

Red Cabbage with Cranberries

Red cabbage goes especially well with ham and with rich meats such as pork and goose. It’s best made ahead and reheated because the flavors mellow. Most recipes include apples as the tart element of the dish. Here, cranberries take over.


1 medium head red cabbage

1 medium onion, peeled, quartered, then sliced

¾ tsp. salt

6 whole cloves

6 juniper berries (optional)

1 bay leaf

1 cup jellied cranberry sauce

Discard the coarse outer leaves and the stump of the stem of the cabbage. Now cut in half, and then with the cut side down, cut each half into quarters and slice finely. Put in a saucepan with the sliced onions. Add enough water to reach the level of the cabbage. Also add the salt, cloves, juniper (if using) and bay leaf.

Bring to the boil, cover and simmer slowly for an hour. Add the cranberry sauce, and continuing simmering and stirring occasionally for one to two more hours, or until the cabbage is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated.

Ideally, leave for 24 hours (or up to 48 if that’s helpful). Reheat for 10 minutes, then taste for seasoning. You might want to add a little sugar for a sweet-sour effect, or more jellied cranberry sauce or a little cranberry juice to increase the tartness.

Gluten-Free Cranberry Coconut Muffins

Coconut flour absorbs more liquid than wheat flour and doesn’t make such a cohesive dough or batter, so the texture of these muffins is macaroon-like rather than cake-like. The sharp taste of cranberries brightens the richer flavor of coconut, which comes in several forms — milk, flour, oil and flaked. If you don’t have coconut milk or oil, you can use other nut-based milks and oils.


1¼ cups fresh or frozen cranberries

¼ cup confectioner’s sugar

3 eggs beaten

1 cup light coconut milk

½ cup liquid coconut oil

¼ cup honey

1 tsp. vanilla

1¼ cups coconut flour

4 tsp. baking powder

2 T flaked coconut (optional)

Grease the cups of a 12-hole muffin pan or line them with silicone or paper cups. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the cranberries and confectioner’s sugar in a plastic bag. Close it and shake to coat the cranberries with the sugar. Now bash several times with a can of food or a rolling pin — just enough to break the cranberries without smushing them entirely. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes.

Beat together the eggs, coconut milk, coconut oil, honey and vanilla. In another bowl, mix the coconut flour with the baking powder. Make a well in the center and pour in the liquid mixture. Mix briefly, then stir in the sugared cranberries. Coconut flour absorbs liquid so the mixture will seem to expand.

With your hands, form balls and pop them in the prepared muffin pan. (If the mixture doesn’t cohere, add cold water a tablespoon at a time until it does.) If you like, sprinkle a little flaked coconut on top of each muffin. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Cranberry Streusel Tart

Sweet buttery streusel and tart cranberries makes this a truly delicious tart — perfect for any time when fresh or frozen cranberries are around. The recipe is adapted from one by Jim Dodge, a former chef at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His precise pastry is easy to make and forms an excellent crust, but if you prefer, you could use your own favorite shortcrust recipe.

Pastry ingredients:

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. sugar

¼ tsp. salt

8 T unsalted butter, cold

¼ cup whipping cream

Filling ingredients:

8 T (1 stick) cold unsalted butter

¾ cup all-purpose flour

¼ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. powdered cinnamon

1 cup light brown sugar

3 cups (1 bag) fresh cranberries

½ cup white sugar

2 tsp. confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and lightly butter a 9-inch pan. On a large work surface, blend the flour, salt and sugar together with your fingers, then form the mixture into a 12-inch diameter ring. Cut the butter into half-inch slices and put them in the empty center. Press the butter into the work surface with the heel of your hand. It will be cold and hard and will break into bits at first, but as you work it, it will become smooth. At this point, bring the flour over it and when the butter is covered, gently pinch the flour into it.

As you work, raise the mixture a few inches above the work surface, then let it drop back to keep it cool and aerated. When the mixture looks like coarse meal, add the cream and gently blend with your hands until the dough comes together. Press the mixture into the work surface with a gentle kneading motion.

Roll into an 11-inch circle. Fold in half and unfold over a 9-inch tart pan. Center the dough in the pan. Lift the edges so the dough falls into the bottom of the pan. Press the dough into the sides and trim the edge against the rim of the pan. Place in the fridge while you prepare the filling.

To make the streusel, cut the butter into 1-inch cubes and place it in a mixing bowl with the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and brown sugar. Mix until it forms large clumps. Pinch one or two. If you pinch into solid butter, keep mixing. Set aside.

Put the cranberries in the pie shell and sprinkle them with the white sugar. Scatter the streusel mixture on top. Bake in the center of the lower rack of the oven. Continue baking until the top is golden brown and the fruit bubbles a little around the edges (about 35 to 40 minutes).

Serve at room temperature after dusting the tart with sifted confectioners’ sugar.

Cranberry-Maple Upside-Down Cake

Serve this cake warm at a brunch, or offer it for dessert with whipped cream.

Topping ingredients:

2 T butter

¼ cup maple syrup

2 T light brown sugar

2 ½ cups cranberries

Cake ingredients:

1 cup cake flour or all-purpose flour

1½ tsp. baking powder

1½ tsp. cinnamon

1 stick butter, softened

½ cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 T milk or more as needed

To make the topping, put the butter in a saucepan over low heat and melt. Stir in the maple syrup and brown sugar and let the sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat and stir in the cranberries. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8- or 9-inch cake pan with butter, and line the base with parchment.

Sift the flour, baking powder and cinnamon together, and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Thoroughly mix in one egg, plus a tablespoon of flour. Repeat with the other egg and another tablespoon of flour. Finally, mix in the vanilla and the rest of the flour, adding milk a tablespoon at a time until you get a soft batter of dropping consistency.

Stir the cranberry mixture again and tip it into the prepared pan. Spread the batter on top. It may seem thin with cranberries peeping through, but that’s OK.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the surface is pale gold and a skewer poked into the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife between the cake and the edge of the pan. Place a large serving plate on top and, using a cloth or oven mitt to protect your hands, quickly invert so the cake falls onto the plate. Gently remove the pan and take the parchment paper from the top. (Its function was to prevent the sugar and maple syrup from scorching during baking.)

Serve warm with warm maple syrup for pouring on top.

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