When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was a mostly elegant occasion. My grandmother would spend two manic days preparing the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread dressing, pumpkin pie and more, and proudly serve it to a pack of unruly grandkids on her finest china.
Of course, no Thanksgiving spread would be complete without the cranberry sauce, and so it appeared on Grandmother's table every year, a little crimson cylinder shaped like a tin can dumped onto a small silver tray. I have no memory of ever eating a bite from the cranberry can, nor do I recall ever seeing anybody else eat it. Maybe Grandmother thought of the cranberry can as a decoration, but it never seemed like it quite belonged alongside the other freshly-prepared offerings.
Years later, when I assumed the role of Thanksgiving hostess, I used to skip the cranberry sauce altogether because I didn't see the point of opening a can only to throw the sauce away two hours later-- until a friend showed me how easy it is to make your own cranberry sauce from scratch. My Thanksgiving table has never been the same.
Now I know that a lot of folks are loyal to classic cranberry sauce from a can, and if that's your position, I say rock on! But if you're looking to try a fresh and ridiculously easy recipe that will amaze your holiday guests, this is it. Homemade cranberry sauce takes about 15 minutes to prepare, but you need to make it the day before so that it has time to chill. This is also a great recipe to get kids cooking; my daughter made a batch last night for her classroom's Thanksgiving feast. This recipe comes from the second edition of The Joy of Cooking.
1 pound fresh cranberries, rinsed
2 cups sugar (yes, it's a lot of sugar, but keep in mind, cranberries are tart)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange zest ( but you can skip this if you want)
Cook, uncovered, over medium heat until most of the cranberries pop open and the mixture has thickened slightly, about 7 to 10 minutes. Cool and refrigerate over night.
The berries require little attention while they're cooking, just a stir now and then, but if you have a child old enough to work at the stove, like my daughter, you can let her have the fun of stirring as much as she wants -- it won't hurt the sauce a bit. Enjoy!