Sunday, October 17, 2010

ingredient: CRANBERRIES

Fruits that we don’t eat raw can be a hard sell. Quinces never made it past the occasional jelly; plantains are pretty much stuck in fritters. People seem to expect fruit to burst forth sweet, juicy, and ready to eat. So from an economic standpoint, the cranberry has done considerably well for itself. Though it is too sour to eat raw, it’s still a major crop in both the United States and Canada. I should be happy for the cranberry. And yet.

And yet about 95% of cranberries are processed into products which, frankly, can bear little resemblance to the tart berry itself: drinks like cranberry juice cocktail, sweetened dried cranberries, and of course, cranberry sauce to liven up your aunt’s dry-as-straw Thanksgiving turkey. This is a shame because, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the cranberry is an actual, and I might add, the original, “super-food” (suck it, açai).

In case you’re not sure what it takes to be a legitimate super-food, consider this: cranberries are super-effective at preventing kidney stones, improving blood vessel function, preventing macular degeneration, and fighting viruses. Each beautiful berry contains super-high levels of antioxidants which help your body do all sorts of things, like fight cancer. As a matter of fact, I’d like to think that it was no coincidence that of all the cocktails, the Cosmopolitan became the iconic drink of the self-empowered girl. Wouldn’t it be nice if the producers at HBO were at least trying to promote UTI-free Sex and the City? Because, dear ladies, downing some cosmos will cut your risk of getting a UTI by 50% while increasing your chance of getting laid by the same. It’s win-win for everybody except E.Coli, which, thanks to cranberry juice, is now unable to adhere to the walls of your urinary tract.

From a culinary standpoint, cranberries are super because they have a unique flavor profile. Their slight sourness provides the perfect foil for rich desserts. Yet, especially when cooked with a little sugar, they also have a wonderful berry flavor (a flavor which as a kid I would call “red.”) Wine-poached cranberries on vanilla ice cream, perhaps? Chocolate tart with candied cranberries? Yes, please.

And of course, cranberries taste like New England. It’s just a historical fact! These low creeping evergreen shrubs are native to the region. The Native Americans ate them. Which means the botanically-challenged pilgrims ate them. In fact, half the US production of cranberries still comes from Massachusetts. I can personally attest to this because I have been going to Cape Cod every year for twenty-five years. Cape Cod is not only where the pilgrims tromped around before making the stupid decision to move on to mosquito-infected Plymouth (I guess they couldn’t foresee the two hundred year rise in property value), but also where cranberries were first commercially cultivated. There is something about the Cape’s crisp, salty air and the gnarled scrub pines which shoot from the sandy soil which makes the cranberry feel like the prefect representative food. It’s wicked sweet and sow-ah, like life!

Cranberry Linzertorte
adapted from Orangette

I have always wanted to cook with real live cranberries. They don’t cross my path very often (quick math from above: only 5% of cranberries are sold raw) so I was surprised and delighted to see them on the “seasonal” display table at my grocery store, next to some decorative gourds and a tenuous pyramid of Halloween candy. I was even more delighted to find that Orangette had once made a cranberry version of one of my favorite desserts (it uses jam): the Linzertorte.

To be fair, this tart isn’t a traditional Linzertorte. The traditional Linzertorte is an Austrian specialty which was developed as early as 1653. In 1653, the Pilgrims were probably still figuring out what to do with corn, much less the cranberry. But as an old-world/new-world hybrid, this tart is way more successful than Groundhog Day or David Beckham for L.A. Galaxy. The crust itself is like a crumbly cookie. It’s spiced with cinnamon and cloves and has nuttiness from the toasted ground almonds. Despite the sugar, the filling is not too sweet, especially because the sweet-tart cranberry flavor profile is replicated by the raisins (sweet) and the orange peel (tart). In fact, I could easily eat the filling alone as a new cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

Serves 8

For the filling:
2 cups granulated sugar
¾ cup cold water, divided
12 ounces fresh cranberries, picked over and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
1 tsp grated orange peel
2 Tbs cornstarch

For the crust:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups toasted almonds, finely ground
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp grated orange peel
1/2 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
6 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temp, diced
2 egg yolks, beaten with 1 Tbs water
1/4 cup water

Powdered sugar (optional, for dusting)

equipment: 9 inch tart pan


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

*if your almonds are not yet toasted, now would be a good time to toast them.*

Start by making the filling. Combine the sugar and ½ cup water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the cranberries, raisins, and orange peel.

Raise heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Continue to let the filling bubble away, stirring frequently, for about 6 minutes. Orangette says stir “until the cranberries pop.” I read this and thought, until the cranberries do what? But pop they did, quite literally. What you’ll see is the berries crack down the side, oozing out their succulent juice, and what you’ll hear is, as promised, as many little pops as a bowl of rice krispies.

When the berries seem to have almost all popped, mix the cornstarch with ¼ cup water in a small bowl. Add it to the cranberry mixture and stir to combine. Take the saucepan off the heat and set it aside. You should allow it to cool completely, during which time it will also thicken to the texture of a chunky jam or chutney (see left)

While the cranberry mixture cools, make the crust.

In a food processor (what oh what did we do without food processors?) add the flour, ground almonds, sugar cinnamon, orange peel, cloves, and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. With the machine running, add the egg yolks (which you’ve mixed with water). At this point I’m almost positive you will need to add some water to help the dough cohere. I went with a half tablespoon or so at a time, processing between additions, and squeezing the dough to see if it would stick together. I needed quite a bit of water, probably 3 TBSP, to get my dough to go from sand to a workable condition. Once it’s there, take the crust out of the processor. Set aside 1 ½ cups of the dough which you will use to make the lattice crust

Take the remaining dough and press it into the 9 inch tart pan with removable bottom. Try to make sure that there is a definite difference between the sides of the pan and the bottom, so that the filling will have somewhere to go. Bake the crust for 15 minutes.

When the crust has baked for 15 minutes, take it out of the oven and fill it with the cranberry filling. Roll out the remaining dough into a 9 inch circle that’s about ¼ inch thick. Cut the circle into ¾ inch strips with a pairing knife. Carefully lift the strips up and onto the tart, first horizontally, then back over, to make the lattice. This dough is too delicate to do a true weave, but it looks perfectly nice doing an overlay.

Bake the tart for 30 minutes, when it should be nice and toasted brown. Once the tart was cooled, I dusted it with confectioners sugar, to make it look extra special. Serve on a crisp New England day, while the leaves change.


  1. Carrie, Brian and I just made the pie filling to put over pancakes sans
    cornstarch and all we have to say delicious!

  2. I would take the credit, but Stef might get upset.

  3. Nope, it was totally Brian's idea, AND he made the sauce himself with minimal consultation!