A Very Dainty Jelly
Improving on the canned cranberry
BY BETH MAXEY
“Even cranberries grow in the Northwest,” my booth-mate nodded reassuringly.
“Really?” our visitor said, skeptical, but unwilling to contradict.
I was volunteering at the Eat Local for Thanksgiving booth at the Seattle Tilth Harvest Fair, next to a picture of a local turkey, some Ozette potatoes, Walla Walla onions, and a Sugar Hubbard squash, secretly agreeing with the visitor. After a number of years living in the Boston area near the cranberry bogs, I thought: Cranberries? In the Northwest? I’m not so sure.
So, I did a little research, and lo and behold, the folks at Tilth know what they’re talking about. There are over 1000 acres of cranberries in Washington and over 230 growers stretched from BC to Oregon. Cranberry plants were brought from Massachusetts as long ago as the 1890s; the Long Beach Peninsula is also known as the Cranberry Coast, and the Willamette Valley, along with its renowned wines, produces some of the best cranberries you’ve ever tasted.
It’s not just that we grow cranberries: We grow them better. Our mild climate (compared to Michigan and Massachusetts, the other major production areas) allows for a longer growing season and thus a redder, riper, less acidic berry. A fully mature cranberry is not neon Christmas red, but dark maroon, almost cherry-purple. When fruit ripens—even a fruit known for its brightly acidic flavor—an amazing thing happens: it gets sweeter.
When I was a kid, cranberries entered our house in two forms, both with specific meanings: If my mom put a gallon of Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail in the cart, it meant my aunt was coming to visit, and cocktails would be made. If she reached for a can or two of jelled cranberry sauce it meant that it was Thanksgiving, or time for one of her occasional Thanksgiving-in-January dinners.
My grandma was a Depression era farm girl turned career woman, who went from home-canned veggies and burlap skivvies to high heels, high efficiency and a love of Betty Crocker instant cakes and Marie Callendar frozen pies. My mom was a counterrevolutionary. She gardened. She cooked. She used garlic, and onions, and anchovies.
Which is all to say that except for the cranberry sauce, our Thanksgivings, whether in November or otherwise, were homemade. A brined whole bird, fresh stuffing, gravy shook up in an old mayonnaise jar to render it lump-free (no giblets!), dark caramelized onions, buttered peas, mashed potatoes, and homemade pies. Grandma helped my sister and I make the pies, exhorted my mom not to work too hard, and always contributed an ambrosia salad of sour cream, shredded coconut, mini-marshmallows, mandarin oranges and pineapple chunks in syrup.
My sister and I fought over who got to liberate the jellied cranberry sauce from the can. It was the last task before we sat down to eat. Pierce the tin can on one end, then the other. Then the shlurp and suck of the jellied cylinder as it slid out of the can. Then admiration as it sat glistening with its ridges, wobbling in the bowl. And let’s not forget the next day, and the slices of cranberry jelly on my leftover sandwich, more perfect and round than any tomato.
As an adult, I have to admit, I still want jelled cranberry sauce on my Thanksgiving table. Or maybe under my table: I want to be able to eat it without having to admit it is there, that I loved it so much as a child, and that I still love it, even now. What I needed were local cranberries and a good classic recipe. Luckily, that is exactly what I got.
When I got married, my grandma gave me her long unused cookbooks. One was so old that the title was worn off and the crumbling leather covers were taped together.
“What did you make from this one?” I asked, never having known her to cook.
“Oh, nothing, really,” she said, as I’d expected. “But it belonged to my mother and I thought you might have fun looking at it.” She was right: it contained among other things, sections on napkin folding, convalescent food, and three variations on recipes for cooking a squirrel.
But it also contained exactly what I was looking for: Cranberry Jelly, No.2
“Dainty Cranberry Jelly is made by boiling 1 quart berries in 1 pint water until soft. Strain, add 1 cup sugar to each cup of juice and let it just come to a boil. Wet the molds with cold water and pour the juice into them. Serve in an oval glass dish.”
In case you are wondering, Cranberry Jelly, No. 1, (the non-dainty variety) is the same as its successor except that it’s unstrained. Both, I noticed, did not call for added pectin. I consulted Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. “Cranberries are rich in pectin, which is why a barely cooked puree thickens immediately into a sauce.” Good, I thought, no additives or preservatives: just cranberries, their natural pectin and sugar. Then I read on: “The familiar jelly-like cranberry sauce was born early in the 20th century when a large producer decided to process his damaged berries into a canned puree.” Hmm. So cranberry jelly is a product of industrial origins, after all?
I decided to make my own anyway, and I’m happy I did. Cranberry Jelly, No. 2 is really very nice. My Northwest cranberries were so sweet that I only needed half as much sugar and, when the natural pectin rendered a soft, spoonable jelly, I decided to include a packet of unflavored Knox Gelatin so my jelly would be sliceable. Basic as it was, I discovered two important things from this recipe. First, I have grown up. I no longer need store bought cranberry jelly on my Thanksgiving table, when I have my own sophisticatedly simple dainty variety. Second, these Northwest berries are good. And you know what else is good? A homemade Northwest cranberry juice cosmopolitan. Here’s to my aunt!
Beth Maxey is the chef and owner of Feast Suppers. When she is not cooking she is at work on a memoir about discovering food and family in Sri Lanka.