FROM the strings of cranberries that adorn a Christmas tree to the last precious crumb of cranberry cheesecake, pudding, or souffle, this versatile berry can play many roles in one or more of the courses that compose your holiday dinner.

There are several reasons for the prevalence of the cranberry on Christmas tables throughout America.

It is said to be the only edible berry that originated in North America. It was named by the Pilgrims, who thought the pink blossoms resembled the heads of cranes; hence ''crane-berry.'' Even though historians say that cranberries were probably not served at the colonists' first Thanksgiving, we know that the Indians were already making use of them.

By 1773 the tart berries were so popular that one Cape Cod community levied a the nation's cranberries still come from Cape Cod, although they are now also cultivated in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, and Canada.

Cranberries lend vivid color and a welcome tang to contrast with the taste of other traditional fare.

Cranberry Sherbet

1 3/4 cups water

3 1/2 cups sugar

1 quart fresh cranberries

2 egg whites

Combine water and sugar and bring to a boil. Add the washed cranberries and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes or until cranberries start to pop. Drain off the juice and rub berries through a sieve. Chill.

Beat egg whites until frothy. Combine with cooled cranberries and freeze. When mixture is partly frozen, remove and beat vigorously. Return to freezer until mixture is completely solid. Spoon into sherbet glasses. Serves 8 to 12.

Christmas Cranberry-Pork Loaf

2eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk

30 crushed whole-wheat crackers

2 medium onions, chopped

3 tablespoons dried parsley flakes

1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crushed

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon dried sage, crushed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

3 pounds ground pork

1 pound ground ham

1 cup whole cranberry sauce

1 cup chili sauce

1/2 cup water

In bowl combine eggs, milk, cracker crumbs, onion, parsley flakes, marjoram, mustard, sage, salt, and pepper. Add pork and ham. Mix well. Divide mixture in half. Pat half the mixture into 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2-inch loaf pan. Unmold. Wrap in moisture-vaporproof material. Seal, label, and freeze.

Pat remaining mixture into same loaf pan. Bake, uncovered, in 350 degree F. oven for 1 1/2 hours. Drain off fat.

Meanwhile, combine cranberry sauce, chili sauce, and water. Divide mixture in half. Freeze one portion. Heat remaining half. Spoon some over loaf and pass remainder. Makes 8 servings per loaf.

To bake frozen loaf, unwrap and place in shallow baking pan. Bake, uncovered, in 350 degree F. oven for about 2 hours. Drain fat. Heat frozen sauce and serve as above.

Baked Acorn Squash With Cranberries

4 1-pound acorn squash

4 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup canned whole cranberry sauce

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 cup light brown sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Scrub squash. Cut in half. With spoon, remove seeds and strings. Arrange squash halves cut side down in shallow baking pan. Add hot water, 1/2-inch deep. Bake 40 minutes.

Pour off liquid from baking pan. Turn squash cut side up. Brush inside of each with butter and salt.

Combine cranberry sauce with cinnamon and brown sugar. Mix well. Divide evenly into squash halves. Bake 30 minutes longer. Serves 8.

Holiday Cranberry-Pumpkin Muffins

2 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/3 cup oil

2 eggs

1 1/4 cups canned pumpkin

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

2 cups fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped

Sift together first seven ingredients. Beat together oil, eggs, and pumpkin. Add to flour mixture. Stir in nuts and cranberries. Spoon into 18 well-greased muffin cups.

Bake at 400 degrees F. 20 to 30 minutes. Turn out onto racks to cool. Makes 18.

Cranberry Crunch

1 pound fresh or thawed frozen

cranberries, rinsed and well drained

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar

2 tablespoons grated orange peel

3/4 cup orange juice

3/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup butter or margarine

1 cup heavy cream, softly whipped with 2 tablespoons sugar and seeds scraped from a 4-inch piece vanilla bean (or 3/4 teaspoon vanilla)

Place cranberries, granulated sugar, peel, and juice in a 1 1/2-quart souffle dish or casserole. Stir to mix well.

In bowl, combine oats, brown sugar, and flour. Cut in butter to make a crumbly mixture. Sprinkle evenly over cranberries.

Bake in preheated 375 degree F. oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until topping is golden brown. Cool on rack until warm. Spoon out and serve with whipped cream. Serves 6.

Crustless Cranberry Pie

2 cups fresh cranberries

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup chopped pecans

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup flour

3/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

Mix cranberries, sugar, and pecans. Spread in greased 10-inch pie plate. Mix remaining ingredients and spread over berries. Bake at 325 degrees F. for 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve hot or cold with whipped cream, ice cream, or hard sauce.

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