It was this time last year when I struck up a conversation with the tasting room manager at a local winery here in the Hamptons about what we’d be serving for Thanksgiving. In a game of one-upmanship that often occurs between foodies in this part of the world, I mentioned the turkey I had ordered from a Bridgehampton poultry farm. She countered by describing the stuffing she was making with oysters from a famed North Fork oyster bed. Not to be outdone, I told her I’d be including a handpicked blend of Jonagold, Mutsu and honey crisp apples from an orchard in Watermill in this year’s pie.
And then she stopped me dead with this: “Over the weekend I gathered my own cranberries at the bog between the double dunes in Amagansett. The same bog where Native Americans collected fruit before the Dutch settled the village in 1690!”
“How was that?” I asked, terribly impressed. I had never heard of pick-your-own cranberries.
“Great. It only took an hour to gather a pint, and chigger bites are not nearly as bad as everyone says.” Understanding that I’d have to endure days of unrelenting itching if I wanted to collect enough local fruit for half a dozen cranberry muffins, I immediately ceded bragging rights to my new friend. And then I did what I always do in the weeks before Thanksgiving: I headed to King Kullen grocery store to buy a few bags of cranberries harvested several states away by a giant mechanized comb.
Not your pilgrims’ cranberry sauce
Cranberries are, famously, one of only three native North American fruits that are commercially grown today (blueberries and Concord grapes are the other two). There’s no documentary evidence that cranberry sauce was served at the first Thanksgiving, but it’s certainly possible that cranberries made an appearance on that table. Back in the 17th century, the most popular Native American cranberry preparation was pemmican, a combination of crushed berries, dried deer meat and rendered fat. This dish never established itself as part of our Thanksgiving menu, but has enjoyed popularity with groups interested in survival food, including fur traders, arctic explorers and Boy Scouts.
Contrary to what you see in Ocean Spray commercials, cranberries don’t actually grow in waist-deep water. They grow on vines, wild and cultivated, in wetland soil. Growers sometimes flood the bogs to make the buoyant berries easier to harvest. As long as the vines are undamaged by frost, pests or harvesting equipment, they will produce fruit indefinitely. So it is possible that my friend was eating heirloom berries from a 300-year-old vine. But even if you eat cranberries from a new vine, you can still enjoy their health benefits. Cranberries are a good source of vitamin C, which is why American whalers and mariners carried them on their boats to prevent scurvy. Native Americans believed them to have all sorts of medicinal properties; it turns out they are packed with disease-preventing antioxidants.
Cranberry-caramel shortbread bars
I’ve never acquired a taste for cranberry sauce, preferring to moisten my turkey with giblet gravy. Maybe it’s because when I think of cranberry sauce I hear the sucking sound made by a cylinder of semi-solid jelly — my parents’ choice — as it slides from the can. That sound always freaked me out. I’d rather use my cranberries to make a sweet-tart Thanksgiving dessert to present alongside my apple and chocolate-pecan pies. In the past, I’ve made cranberry upside down cake, cranberry cheesecake and cranberry-white chocolate chunk cookies.
This year I’m planning on making wonderfully rich shortbread bars. They couldn’t be simpler. Just press half of the rich dough into the bottom of a baking pan and crumble the remaining dough over a filling of cranberries, walnuts, brown sugar and cream. The cranberry filling is cooked briefly on top of the stove, to thicken the brown sugar and cream so they coat the berries. The berries themselves will cook down adequately in the oven along with the pastry.
I may not have learned how to forage for my own fruit, but at least I’ve learned how to shop for fresh cranberries at the supermarket: I look for firm, shiny red berries, avoiding bags that contain too many soft, shriveled and/or green ones. And this year, in a small change from last year, I managed to buy certified organic cranberries, which puts me one step closer to that wild cranberry bog by the beach.
Cranberry-Caramel Shortbread Bars
Makes 16 squares
1. Combine the brown sugar and heavy cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the cranberries and bring to a boil. Cook until the berries soften (but are still holding together) and the sauce is syrupy and thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape into a bowl, stir in the nuts, and let cool.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the oven racks on the bottom third and top third of the oven. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil, making sure the foil is tucked into all the corners and that there is at least 1 inch overhanging the top of the pan.
3. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.
4. Combine the butter and sugar in a medium-size mixing bowl and cream together with an electric mixer until smooth. Stir in the egg. Stir in the vanilla extract. Stir in the flour.
5. Use a small offset spatula to smooth half the mixture in an even layer across the bottom of the pan. Place the pan in the freezer along with the bowl containing the remaining half of the shortbread dough, for 15 minutes to firm up.
6. Remove the pan from the freezer and spread the cranberry and walnut mixture in an even layer on top of the dough. Pinch off grape-size pieces of the remaining dough and scatter them evenly over the cranberries.
7. Place the pan on the bottom oven rack and bake for 20 minutes (this will crisp up the bottom crust). Transfer to the top rack and bake until the top is golden, another 15 to 20 minutes. Let the pan cool completely on a wire rack.
8. Grasping the overhanging foil on either side of the pan, lift out the squares and place them on a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to four days.
Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).