Cranberry Sauce for Christmas

Cranberries -- Photo Courtesy of Lady Disdain

Cranberries -- Photo Courtesy of Lady Disdain

One valuable lesson I’ve learned from this experiment in cooking Great Aunt Lillian’s recipe’s is NEVER, and I repeat, NEVER, think you will make one of these recipes on the first try to take to a big gathering such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. As I think back to my cooking tests, very few recipes have been successes on the first try. Most have had to be made again after a bit of tweaking after the “ah ha moment” when I realize what is unspoken in the recipe.

And so the story of Great Aunt Lillian’s Crystal Cranberry Sauce. Ah, the name conjures up such visions of a beautiful cranberry sauce gracing the Thanksgiving table as I waltz into my friends home with an angelic smile on my face. But this was not to be. Instead I had buckets and buckets of super sweet uncongealed cranberry syrup an hour before I was to appear at the event! Thankfully, my husband had over bought on the cranberries, and I was able to save the day with the modern recipe on the back of the cranberry bag. So what happened? I’d say lack of research due to my haste in getting ready for a holiday.

The First Thanksgiving -- Photo Courtesy of Turtlemom4bacon

The First Thanksgiving -- Photo Courtesy of Turtlemom4bacon

My normal routine in preparing to cook a recipe is to find similar recipes from the period and read them for common cooking instructions, times, and temperatures. This time, I grabbed our 1970s Joy of Cooking and read their version of Cranberry Sauce and dove right in. I mean how hard can it be to cook cranberry sauce right?

Before we look at the recipe, let’s look at the history of Cranberry Sauce in America. Cranberries may or may not have been served at the first Thanksgiving. We don’t know for sure. Cranberries were eaten and enjoyed by the Native American tribes that the first settlers came into contact with. From them early settlers adopted the cranberry into our cooking, even though cranberries are known to grow in England. (Many people wrongly believe the cranberry is native to America. Nope!) The Colonists did find them bitter and added sugar to sweeten them and used them as a condiment or relish and in sweetened pies and puddings.

Aunt Lilly's Cranberry Sauce Recipe

Aunt Lilly's Cranberry Sauce Recipe

In reviewing some early recipes you have the whole range from very sweet, such as the 1840 recipe that calls for a quart of cranberries, a wine glass full of water, and a pound of brown sugar, to an 1885 recipe that calls for a quart of cranberries, a teacup full of water, and a teacup of brown sugar. I have found scores of recipes and all call for different ratios of sugar to cranberries. Of the five recipes from the 19th and early 20th century I had access to I found that three of the recipes call for a very sweet two to one ratio of cranberries to sugar while two called for a more modern three to one ratio.

Here’s Aunt Lillian’s recipe:

Crystal Cranberry Sauce (and yes, this makes a HUGE quantity of Sauce)

  • 2 quarts (8 cups) cranberries
  • 5 cups sugar
  • 1 quart (4 cups) water

Wash the cranberries and place in a covered kettle. Dissolve the sugar and water and pour over cranberries. Let boil 15 minutes and do not stir, Take from fire, keep covered and let cool in syrup.

Here’s what I did and what ‘d do the second time IF I’d try it again:

I washed the cranberries and put them in the pan with with sugar and the water and brought them all to a boil. I let it boil without stirring (this must have been very important as she had this underlined) for 15 minutes. I then took it off the burner and let it cool in the syrup.

Here’s what I do differently:

The Cranberries Do Look Like Little Crystals When They Cook

The Cranberries Do Look Like Little Crystals When They Cook

First, I’d boil the sugar and water first until the sugar dissolves and pour that over the cranberries and then bring the whole thing to a boil again for 15 minutes.

Next, I’d keep the whole thing covered during the 15 minutes (note her reference to “take from fire, keep covered…..” which implies the cranberries are covered during cooking).

Then I’d keep the pan covered as the sauce cools.

But here’s the rub. In tasting what I cooked it was mind numbingly sweet! So sweet even if it had congealed we’d never eat it. Diabetic coma you bet!

So Finally, for Christmas I’ll half the recipe and reduce the amount of sugar to get to a modern 3 to 1 ratio and try it one more time.

And since I just spent an eon agonizing over the measurements that is roughly:

  • 1 quart cranberries
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar (that’s the rough part for us Humanities majors!)
  • 2 cups water

Thankfully we are eating Christmas dinner alone with the doggies so if this batch doesn’t work oh well! But I will report back on the results! Merry Christmas to all and Happy New Year!

p.s. – if the Cranberry Sauce doesn’t work, the one on the back of the cranberry bag is excellent!

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