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Monday, December 27, 2010

Oh Cranberreeeee! Oh Cranberreeee

The unassuming little cranberry. 
Forsaken for most of the year, the little guy slides into the spotlight for two short months when it either slides out of a can, or is cooked into a sauce...and then before you know it is gone again. Oh sure, you come across it in juice form--an option on those airline flight attendant beverage carts. But that's kind of it for the tart and delightful cranberry. It's so unfortunate, really, to be perceived in such a limited way.

Every Thanksgiving I look forward to making my trusty cranberry sauce recipe. It's nothing fancy, just fresh berries, sugar, orange juice and orange zest that come together beautifully each and every time, while filling the kitchen with a wonderful, zesty holiday aroma. You can't help but love it when something so easy to cook delivers every time. But my brainstorm this year had to do with some leftover sauce that week after Thanksgiving. It completely perked up a batch of Irish oatmeal, drizzled on top along with some vanilla yogurt. And it got me to thinking...I should make another batch of cranberry sauce, just to use on oatmeal this winter.

There was also the matter of a cranberry shortbread recipe I found in an old issue of Gourmet. I desperately wanted to give it a shot, but had way too much on my plate, so to speak, what with the rest of the cooking for the Thanksgiving meal. So, I turned to my baking goddess sister-in-law, C. She of the impeccable shortbread baking skills would surely want to give this recipe a spin, I thought.  She kindly agreed and sure enough, her cranberry squares were my favorite part of the dessert spread this year.

And then, as I was planning the holiday menus for Christmas, yet another recipe caught my eye...featuring, of course...the cranberry.

I was flipping through a favorite baking book—Rustic Fruit Desserts—looking for something that would be good with brunch or afternoon tea on Christmas Day. Lo and behold! A gorgeous photograph good enough to eat of something called Cranberry Buckle with Vanilla Crumb was virtually calling my name.

Now I don't know about you, but I just don't make 'buckles'. (sigh... Eastern European baking heritage sadly does not include buckles.) And actually, until my friend, K. gave me the book for my birthday, I had never made a 'slump' or a 'pandowdy' before either and those were a big hit. This buckle featured my new hero...the cranberry, so I figured why not give it a try?

And, of course, the buckle was nothing short of amazing! (Actually everything I have baked from Rustic Fruit Desserts has been stellar.) You layer fresh cranberries in the center of a sour cream-based, orange zest-scented batter and then sprinkle them on top as well, where their tartness perfectly balances a crumbly, vanilla-scented topping. It's a beautiful marriage of flavors, and one I'm thrilled to add to the fleeting cranberry season repertoire.

And so with just a couple weeks of cranberry season left, take this chance to check out the cranberry's multi-faceted personality. You'll never think of it as just another can of juice on an airplane again!

Cranberry Buckle with Vanilla Crumb
(adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson)
Serves 8 to 12

NOTE:  There are two components here, essentially, the cake batter and the streusel-y, crumb topping.  You could make the crumb topping the day before or even weeks before and just keep it in the fridge.  That's what the book suggests, and based on how tremendously delicious it is, that's what I plan to do.  That way you have topping ready and waiting in your freezer, when, on a whim, you decide to throw some apples or pears together for a quick fruit crumble.  In my case, I made a half batch just to use with this buckle, so that's the recipe I will give you here.  If you want to make the full batch, simply double everything.

For buttering the pan:
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the buckle:
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature, or very lightly softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
zest of one orange
2 eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (5 ounces) sour cream
2 cups (8 ounces) fresh cranberries

For the Vanilla Crumb:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/8 cup packed light brown sugar (yes, that's half a 1/4 cup measure!)
pinch of fine sea salt
2 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 tablespoon pure vanilla extract 

Pulse everything BUT the vanilla in a food processor, until the mixture is crumbly.  Add/stir in the vanilla by hand.  The mixture keeps up to three months in the freezer in a ziploc bag or airtight container.

Preheat your oven to 350 F and butter a 9-inch square baking pan.

Make the buckle batter:
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl.
Using a mixer (stand or handheld) cream the butter, sugar and orange zest together on medium-high speed for 3-5 minutes, until light and fluffy.  (I know...seems like a long time, but really, it's important.)
Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
Stir in the vanilla.
Stir in the flour mixture in three additions -- alternating with the sour cream in two additions.  
Begin and end with the flour and scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl occasionally.

Spread the mixture into the prepared pan.  
Distribute the remaining one cup of cranberries over the top and then sprinkle the crumb topping over the cranberries.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until lightly golden and firm on top.

Store cake wrapped in plastic at room temp for 2 to 3 days.