Right now, my kitchen is full of comforting holiday smells. Gingerbread studded with tangy cranberries, just pulled from the oven, is cooling on the counter.
Most years, I’m scrambling to make last-minute gifts for friends and family members. But this time I’m not letting my holiday goodies get away from me. These mini ginger-cakes actually taste better when made in advance, allowing time for the spices to mellow. They’re so rich with butter and molasses that they’ll stay moist for several weeks. They’re especially good served with dollops of cranberry sauce sparked with chunks of homemade candied ginger.
Wisconsin is the fresh cranberry capital of the world. Though production is higher in New Jersey and Massachusetts, their crop is pressed into juice, dried or canned. I am partial to the organic cranberries from Ruesch Century Farm in central Wisconsin and James Lake Farms in northern Wisconsin, where berries are grown without chemicals in smaller bogs. They’re available at farmers markets and our local food co-ops.
Now that it’s peak cranberry season, my sauce production is in full swing. My grandmother used a heavy metal grinder, clamped to her kitchen counter, for her fresh cranberry-orange sauce. Into the giant maw went the fresh berries with a whole orange while out came the tart relish she lightly sweetened with sugar.
These days, I rely on a food processor to do the trick, use maple sugar for complex flavors and substitute a few sweet, thin-skinned clementines for the navel oranges once used. This sauce stays fresh for at least a week in a covered container in the refrigerator. It’s delicious swirled into mayonnaise for turkey salad, as salsa for chips, and a garnish for roast chicken.
Cooking transforms cranberries into a pretty tart sauce that doubles for jam on scones, is great over vanilla ice cream or blood orange sorbet, terrific swirled into yogurt or baked into a crust. In a sauce, they thicken up as they cook because of pectin in the berries. For my recipe, the sauce is sparked with chunks of candied ginger to add not-so-sweet heat.
Fresh, local cranberries are always the best choice; they’re sweeter than frozen and require less sugar to temper their bite. The only trick is to add the sweetener after the sauce is cooked. It doesn’t matter if it’s honey, maple, white or brown sugar, adding it too soon can make the berries tough — and it’s easy to add too much. I always make a little extra sauce, as a gift to myself.
Double Ginger Mini-Loaves
Makes 2 mini-loaves (6 to 8 slices per loaf).
Note: These are just the right size for gift giving. The best part is filling the kitchen with wonderful smells. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and they’ll stay fresh and moist for at least a week. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 1/4 c. flour
• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
• 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
• Pinch ground cloves
• 1/4 tsp. baking power
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1/2 c. mild molasses
• 1/3 c. milk
• 1/3 c. light brown sugar
• 1/2 stick (4 tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted
• 2 tbsp. grated fresh ginger root
• 1 egg
• 1/2 c. fresh cranberries
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 mini (3- by 5 3/4-inch) loaf pans.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg, cloves, baking powder and salt.
In a separate bowl, beat together the molasses, milk, sugar, butter, fresh ginger and egg. Beat in the flour mixture; stir in the cranberries.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes; remove from the pans. Cool completely on wire racks before wrapping.
Very Fresh Cranberry Relish
Makes about 3 cups.
Note: Serve this zesty, bright tasting salsa with chips, swirled into mayonnaise and whisked into vinaigrette. It will keep at least a week in the refrigerator in a covered container. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 unpeeled clementines, halved and seeded
• 1 1/2 c. fresh cranberries
• 1/2 to 3/4 c. maple sugar or white sugar, to taste
Working in batches, purée the clementines and cranberries in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Turn into a bowl and stir in the sugar to taste.
Cranberry Ginger Sauce
Makes 2 1/2 cups.
Note: Tangy and sweet with gingery heat, this sauce doubles as jam on scones or over ice cream. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 1/2 c. fresh cranberries
• 1/2 c. cider
• 1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger
• 1/2 c. sugar or honey, to taste
Put the cranberries and cider into a saucepan and set over medium heat. Cook until the cranberries have just begun to pop and stir in the crystallized ginger. Continue cooking until the sauce thickens, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the sugar or honey to taste.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.