For cranberries, Thanksgiving is their time to shine.
This remarkable small berry saved Colonial sailors from scurvy due to its high content of Vitamin C. Native American Indians mixed cranberries into a poultice to place on arrow wounds to extract poison. During World War II, more than 1 million kilograms of dried cranberries were consumed by the troops each year. Finally, many of today’s cranberry bogs in Massachusetts are over 100-years-old.
What many find surprising is that cranberries grow in a tangled mess of vines that create a very heavy “matting” on the bottom of soggy, sandy soil, called bogs. Once the cranberries are ripe, the bogs are flooded and rounded up into corals. There is just enough air in each cranberry to make it buoyant and float to the top.
Harvesting cranberries is time consuming, but worth going to see during the fall. Some small private bogs still use cranberry rakes to scoop up the berries from the water. Commercially, the process is quite elaborate, and involves conveyor belts placed into the water and automatic scooping before the heavy berry harvest is air-lifted out of the bog by helicopter.
The cranberry hits its peak of deep, red color from the end of September to mid-November. Perfect timing. After all, what would Thanksgiving be without cranberries?
If you are bored with pecan or the traditional pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dessert, try a sweet, but tart, cranberry upside-down cake. Not only is it moist and sumptuous, it adds bright red color to your Thanksgiving feast.
Cranberry Up-Side Down Cake
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
3 /4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup coarse cornmeal or polenta
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of one lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup whole or low-fat milk, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
This is a fabulous cake for Thanksgiving that can also be made in a regular 9-inch cake pan, one that is fine to heat on the stovetop if you don’t have a cast iron skillet. Do not use a spring form pan as the topping will leak. If using frozen cranberries, no need to defrost them before using them.
In a 9- to 10-inch cast iron skillet, melt the butter and the brown sugar together, stirring frequently, until the sugar is liquefied. When the mixture starts to bubble, remove from heat and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal or polenta, baking powder, and salt. In a medium bowl, beat the half cup of butter, granulated sugar and lemon zest at medium high speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until very light and fluffy. Reduce the speed of the mixer to medium and add the eggs one at a time, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides. Mix in the vanilla extract.
At low speed, add half of the flour mixture, then the milk, then the remaining dry ingredients, mixing just enough so that they are combined. Do not over mix. Distribute the cranberries in the prepared pan over the brown sugar mixture and shake the pan so they are in a relatively even layer. Spoon the batter over the cranberries in four mounds, use a spatula to spread the batter evenly over the fruit.
Bake the cake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven, wait 10 minutes, then run a knife around the cake. Place a serving platter overturned on top of the cake in the skillet, then using oven mitts to cover your hands, flip the two over simultaneously, until the cake releases from the pan.
You will see the beauty of this cake as soon as the pan or skillet is removed. The bright red color is dazzling. Happy Thanksgiving!