The sign in the produce section was a shocker. How could it be? “Sorry. Out of cranberries.” I leaned on my cart, incredulous, caught unaware by the cranberry shortage.
It was the day before Thanksgiving. I don’t remember the year -- sometime in the early ‘90s. I was on my last swing through the grocery store. Although each of the guests at my 24-person dinner would bring a dish, there were dozens of little things my husband and I still needed, from pickles to cranberries.
We needed lots of cranberries. With so many people, we always served at least three kinds of sauce or relish. Not to mention the cranberries I’d need for dessert -- cranberry-apple pie. In a cranberry panic, I ran from store to store trying to find enough for our feast. Some stores were out, others had imposed a limit: “one per customer.”
Somehow we made it. But every autumn since, as soon as the first cranberries appear in the grocery stores, I grab three bags. If I’m not ready to use them, I toss them in the freezer.
My hoarding tendencies reemerge annually not just because cranberries are traditional (we could do without candied yams, for example, if there should be a sudden yam blight) but because I’m crazy about them.
Cranberries taste like they look. Tart and tangy, they don’t taste blue or purple, and they’re not at all pink on the palate like a tropical fruit. Their flavor, like their color, is saturated, intense.
And that beyond-citrus intensity is essential this time of year. The rich, creamy foods that rule our tables cry out for touches of spice and piquancy.
As a sweet but assertive, fruity complement to savory dishes, especially those with early American roots -- game birds and poultry, wild rice, corn bread, sausage, apples -- cranberries can’t be beat.
Fresh cranberry relish is most often made with orange zest, and while that pairing is appealing, lemon is even better, more unexpected and almost startling.
A batch of cranberry-lemon relish with dried fig takes almost no time to make and greets your mouth with a wow-I’m-alive! tartness and crunch, then goes a step further and gives you a sweet, figgy finish.
Dried cranberries are as easy to find as raisins these days. Bakers use them as raisin substitutes in scones and muffins, but fresh cranberries are a much more exciting addition.
Although they blend in deliciously when sweetened, they never lose their tartness, and if used generously, they bring sophistication to even the homiest comfort-food recipes.
Take cranberry upside-down cake. It’s easy to put together for a family dinner, and served warm from the oven, the cake layer is rich, buttery and nutmeg-scented. The topping of brown sugar-sweetened cranberries, though, is what gives it zing.
The fruits formerly known as prunes (now grandly renamed dried plums) are rarely combined with cranberries, but when they are, in a fruitcake with almonds, the effect is delightful.
The loaf is dense with fruit and nuts, which will please fruitcake traditionalists, but the cranberries make it so sprightly that it also appeals to folks who shy away from the sticky-sweet stuff. Orange syrup instead of brandy as a soaking liquid makes for a light but moist and flavorful cake.
This loaf can be made using frozen cranberries. You don’t need to thaw them; just rinse and toss them in with the other ingredients. It’s a great recipe for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when nervous cranberry lovers like me can finally be profligate with our stashes.