Every family has its own unique holiday fare that varies with ethnicity and tradition. My family tree is a Brady Bunch blend. A traditional American feast bedecks our table during seasonal gatherings: roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie. In contrast, my in-laws are Swedish, and Scandinavia seasons my mother-in-law's meals. One of her specialties is kroppkakor, a potato dumpling with pork, onions, and spices.
No matter which side of the family we visit for the holidays, the waistline balks, but the taste buds are in bliss.
Sometimes when a person has been raised to enjoy a holiday food in a particular way, there is no changing his or her mind about how it should be prepared. Take sweet potatoes, for example. I know cooks who wouldn't serve them without ample portions of brown sugar and marshmallows, while others cringe at all that sugar "ruining" the mellow flavor of the yams.
In my house, the festive food that can't be tampered with is the cranberry.
Whole berry or jellied, in breads or in pies, Americans prepare this crimson fruit many ways. My mother-in-law whips up a sour-sweet blend of cranberries, orange peel, marshmallows, and sugar. My children won't touch it. It neither looks nor tastes at all like the cranberries served at holiday dinners that my mom or I prepare.
When I was a kid, my family visited my Aunt Lily in Texas, and she served a frozen cranberry salad. Back then, the only salads consumed in our house were green and crunchy, so my siblings and I devoured Aunt Lily's sherbet concoction.
Perhaps this ambrosia has a more official name, but we christened it in honor of our aunt, and since that trip, my mother has made Aunt Lily's Cranberry Salad for every holiday feast.
I'm confident that my children will continue preparing this delight when they grow up. It's the first food they beg for during holiday meals, and they fight over the leftovers at breakfast the next morning.
Aunt Lily's salad is sweet and pink and seems more at home on the dessert table than next to mashed potatoes. In contrast, my mother-in-law's cranberry relish is ruby-red and sour enough to make your salivary glands twinge.
For years I politely declined her relish when it was handed to me at family get-togethers. It seemed sacrilegious to eat cranberries this way – it was kind of like putting milk and cinnamon on rice when any sensible person knows that only butter and salt should accent it.
Finally, one Thanksgiving I cautiously sampled my mother-in-law's cranberry dish. At first my palate rebelled at the burst of flavors jostling for dominance over my taste buds.
But gradually the zest grew on me until soon cranberry relish took up more space on my plate than turkey. Now I can't get enough of the stuff.
This year, a bright red, sweet-sour dish will adorn my holiday table right next to the frozen pastel platter of Aunt Lily's Cranberry Salad. The kids still won't touch my mother-in-law's relish, but I don't mind. That just leaves more for me.
Aunt Lily's Cranberry Salad
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 (6-ounce) can frozen orange juice
1 cup chopped pecans
1 (12-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
1 (16-ounce) can whole cranberry sauce, mashed
In a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and orange juice with an electric mixer until fluffy. Mix in cranberry sauce by hand. Fold in pecans and pineapple.
Pour into a mold and freeze until solid. Serve frozen. Makes 8 servings.
2 apples (do not peel)
1 orange (do not peel)
1 pound fresh cranberries
Sugar to taste, up to 1 cup (see note)
1 cup minimarshmallows
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Core apples and cut apples and orange into chunks.
Put cranberries and apple and orange chunks into a food processor and roughly chop them. Add sugar, marshmallows, and walnuts. Process to blend well. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until time to serve. Makes 10 or more servings.
Note: When using sweet apples, such as Gala, you may not need sugar. With tart apples, such as Granny Smith, start with 2 tablespoons sugar and taste. Add more as needed.