by Alexandra Rasic
A few years ago, my husband and I lost our favorite cranberry sauce recipe. He had found it online and forgot where. It was the perfect mix of tartness, sweetness, and spice. We gave it as gifts, we ate it with our Thanksgiving meal, and we enjoyed it on top of plain yogurt for weeks afterwards. So every year we try a new recipe, hoping to recreate the magic. We have yet to find a replacement, but as my colleagues and I have spent time during the pandemic cooking historic recipes, I thought I’d give some different historic cranberry recipes a try this year. Maybe we’d find a new dish to love.
Cranberries are one of the ingredients associated with the narrative of Thanksgiving that actually has a rich history connected to the time of the Pilgrims’ settlement. While there is no documentation of them being served at the first Thanksgiving, a celebration of the settlers’ first successful harvest in the New World in October 1621, they were plentiful in the area at the time. The Wampanoags called them sassamenesh. The berries flourished in wetlands and sandy soil in New England, and it was New England settlers who came to call the berries “crane-berries” because their blossoms of white flowers reminded them of crane’s heads.
Native Americans used cranberries for food, to dye fabrics, and for medicine. They could be mixed with dried fish or meat and melted tallow and formed into highly nutritious cakes that were slow to spoil. Today, the cranberry is one of only three now commercially-produced fruits that are native to North America, with the other two being blueberries and Concord grapes.
Looking at the Homestead’s collection, I did what many of us do when looking for new recipes, I consulted popular magazines. It didn’t take me long to find an article titled Cranberries for the Holidays in Sunset magazine from November 1927. In print since 1898, Sunset started as a promotional magazine for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Based in Northern California, it survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, though its archive was lost, and by 1914, following the acquisition of the Portland-based Pacific Monthly, it had a strong national following. While circulation diminished during the 1920s, the magazine was acquired by Lawrence W. Lane in 1929. A former advertising executive with Better Homes and Gardens magazine, he revamped the publication to appeal more strongly to women and focus more broadly on the Western states—as it still does today. Recipes and menus have long been featured in the magazine.
“Cranberries are a delicious accompaniment to the holiday dinners that are now only a few weeks away,” the article starts, “and do not think that their use must be confined to the cranberry sauce or jelly that accompanies the turkey. They may appear in almost any course of the dinner and be equally good, adding to the attraction of the table with their bright color.” I don’t know about your Thanksgiving table, but they are definitely the most colorful dish on ours. The article features 15 recipes including standards like sauce and jelly, and some different recipes such as Cranberry Mince Meat and Steamed Cranberry Pudding. “While it would not be Thanksgiving without cranberries,” the author suggests, “their use may be varied so that they may be served throughout the season in a number of ways that will bring this delicious fruit into the menu on every occasion.” That quote right there was the inspiration I needed to try making something new, like a batch of Cranberry Catchup (that’s how they spelled it!). Most definitely a new way to use cranberries in our house, one can find many modern variations of this recipe online using ingredients such as apple cider vinegar instead of white vinegar, brown sugar instead of white sugar, and other ingredients, depending on the recipe, including onion, orange zest, honey, and Chinese five spice powder.
2 1/2 pound cranberries
3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
Wash and look over the cranberries. Cover them with vinegar and cook until they burst. Force through a sieve. Add the other ingredients, return the mixture to the fire and simmer until thick. Seal in clean hot jars. Serve as a relish.
I followed the recipe as it was written, and I’m sorry to say, I don’t recommend it. I made this dish using a hot plate outside on our patio for fear of the house smelling like vinegar. While the smell was not overwhelming, I think it was a good call. Take too deep a breath and you’ll regret it!
After boiling the cranberries and vinegar, I put the mixture through a ricer before returning it to the heat with the other ingredients. After about 30 minutes, it had reduced and thickened nicely. We finally gave it a try. As you might guess, it created quite the pucker face on both me and my husband. All we tasted was vinegar and tart cranberry. We got a hint of the spices…but just a little one. And where was the sweetness from the sugar? We tried adding another 1/2 cup, but there was no significant change. If you really like tart flavors, I could see possibly adding this spread to a turkey sandwich with a savory slaw, but I can’t say I was inspired. It sure looked pretty, though.
Next up, Cranberry Pudding Sauce. The addition of confectioners sugar to this recipe was the selling point and I imagined it would be very good on a turkey or cream cheese sandwich, but not before adding some allspice and cloves, which we did. Spice was what was lacking in this easily made sauce.
Cranberry Pudding Sauce
2 cups cranberries
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup butter
Cook cranberries in water until they are tender. Rub them through a sieve. Cream the butter and add the sugar and cranberry pulp alternately. When finished the sauce should be of the consistency of whipped cream.
So do these recipes replace our beloved spiced cranberry sauce recipe? No. But were they memorable experiments? Yes. We’d definitely make the Cranberry Pudding Sauce again and will continue to think of what else it can compliment.
One thing my colleagues and I have learned from these cooking experiments is that if there is room for a recipe to improve over time, it has (or you should take on that challenge!). Evidence can be found in more modern cook books, magazines, and online forums where we can benefit from instant feedback. And our taste buds have certainly changed over the years as we’ve learned about new spices and ingredients that have expanded our palates even further. Do you have a favorite cranberry recipe? We’d love to hear about it.