Cranberries are a mysterious beast. I read an article by Nigel Slater recently in which he posited them as remarkable because "they are the only fruit that's impossible to eat raw". Now, I wouldn't have thought this was true. What about quinces, whose flesh is grainy, rock-hard and bitter when untempered by heat and sugar? What about gooseberries, mouth-puckeringly sharp and requiring a good blanket of the white stuff to calm them down? Surely Nigel has thought of this, though, experienced culinary connoisseur that he is. Maybe the cranberry really is a different creature altogether. I can't say I've eaten enough raw cranberries, gooseberries and quinces to experience the subtle nuances of their varying astringency.
I do know, however, that I get a bit excited by cranberries at this time of year, purely because they're around for such a short period of time. They're a beautiful fruit, both when raw and jewel-like and when heated to a glossy, blood-red mass. I always find it slightly odd that something from so far away can be perceived as quintessentially English. The Christmas table would be conspicuously lacking without a bowl of cranberry sauce, yet those berries have travelled across the Atlantic to get here. I love the magpie-like tendency of the British when it comes to gastronomy.
Cranberries make a great compote to serve with pancakes; try these 'cheesecake' pancakes for a real treat on Christmas morning. The compote can also be served over good ice cream or stirred into a cake batter; you could even use it to top a festive pavlova.
However, one of my favourite ways with cranberries is to combine them with orange in a lovely fluffy cake batter. Years ago, when I started getting into baking, I made a lot of orange and cranberry muffins from one of my mum's cake cookbooks. It was a really simple recipe, but the results were so delicious. You ended up with a really light cake crumb, infused with the warmth of orange, and peppered with refreshing bursts of scarlet berries, molten from the heat of the oven and bleeding their tart juices into the surrounding sponge.
This recipe revisits those muffins, but in the form of a whole cake. When I spied these gorgeous Christmas tree-shaped disposable cake moulds in Lakeland the other day, I couldn't resist. I figured they'd be great for gift cakes, because the mould can just be thrown away afterwards. As it happened, I was planning to bake some cakes to give to the families whose children I tutor.
Some of my more wild decoration ideas had to be scrapped for the simple reason that I'd be cycling to the station with these two cakes, and the suspension on my bike is definitely not good enough to carry a cake safely over the potholes of Cambridge's roads. In the end I just drizzled some clementine-flavoured white icing over the cakes and decorated them with those little silver balls, to look like baubles.
The cake recipe is really simple: basic creaming of butter and sugar, plus some orange zest, then eggs, flour, and a little orange juice. The cranberries go in at the end. I normally go mad and add all sorts of nuts and spices to my cakes, but this one is perfect in its simplicity. Somehow the orange zest is enough to evoke the fragrant warmth of mulled wine, Christmas pudding and mince pies, all in one go. The cranberries add a lovely moisture to the cake, and I think they look beautiful when the cake is baked, too, flecking the golden sponge with their crimson juices.
If this doesn't have you feeling in the mood for Christmas, I don't know what will!
Do you have any novel ways of using cranberries, apart from in the traditional Christmas condiment?
Cranberry and orange Christmas Tree cakes (makes two cakes to fit two Lakeland Christmas tree moulds, or 2 x 20cm round cakes - halve the recipe to make just one cake):
300g caster sugar
200g light brown soft sugar
Grated zest of 4 oranges
150ml orange juice
8 eggs, beaten
500g self-raising flour, sifted
200g fresh cranberries
Icing sugar, silver balls and a clementine, to decorate
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/fan 160C. If using normal cake tins, grease and line them.
Beat the butter, zest and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (this should take around 5 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition and adding 1tbsp of the flour each time. Finally, fold in the flour and slowly mix in the orange juice. Fold in the cranberries.
Pour the mixture into the tins and bake for around 45 minutes, or until they spring back when touched and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
When the cakes have cooled thoroughly, remove from their tins (if using metal tins). Mix icing sugar with a little clementine juice to form a fairly runny white icing, then drizzle this over the cake. Stick silver balls to the icing.