Every year I struggle with the cranberry question. How can I as a loyal American swallow these bitter berries?
I try to come up with ways to eat cranberries because I accept the cranberry credo. Namely, I believe that the berries must be present at all the big family feasts, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, halftime at the Rose Bowl.
I know that if cranberries aren't there, disaster will strike. The potatoes won't mash, the gravy will be lumpy, the bird will be bland. Cranberries may not be my favorite, but I cannot deny their mythical power. They are, I believe, the cement that holds the big holiday meals together.
In previous years I tried cranberries in the form of jelly, bread and a salad. This year I've got a new plan: I am going to put them in a fruitcake.
Jim Dodge gave me the idea. He puts cranberries in his fruitcake, and is proud of it.
Dodge is one of the country's hotshot chefs, and he is a serious baker. He grew up in New Hampshire, where he was surrounded by locals who regard cranberries as New England's answer to lotus blossoms. Then he made his way west where he was pastry chef for the Stamford Court hotel in San Francisco. He has written "Baking With Jim Dodge" (Simon & Schuster $25). He is part owner of a restaurant in Hong Kong and is working on opening another restaurant in San Francisco.
I had read about Dodge in publications like Food & Wine magazine, and heard about his cooking through the dessert-lovers' underground. When I met him recently, he struck me as the kind of guy who knew what he was doing. He brought me a box of homemade cookies.
The cookies were remarkable; the fruit flavor of the fig came through, helped along by a smooth perfectly cooked pastry. And the cookies were dunkable. They didn't fall apart when you dipped them in a cup of coffee.
It turned out that he had standards for what is and is not a good cookie. Dunkability was one of the standards he applied to fig cookies and to the hard biscotti. When dunked, such a cookie had to stand its ground. It should absorb liquid without disintegrating.
For smaller, thin cookies, he required that they be firm and assertive. The flavor should be immediate and when cracked, such a cookie, he said, "has to snap."
I was impressed. I had never discussed "cookie standards" before. After wolfing down a few cookies, I steered the conversation toward cranberries.
Dodge uses them a lot. He calls for them in 10 other recipes in his new book, including cranberry walnut bars, a walnut tea cake, fig muffins, an apple-almond crisp, a cranberry crumb tart and the fruit cake. He also puts them in mincemeat.
He said he was drawn to cranberry for several reasons, among them tartness. I have found that New Englanders aren't afraid of tartness, either in their berries or their behavior.
A tart flavor, Dodge said, provides a good balance to the richness of pastry dough.
Moreover, he likes the cranberry's style. Its assertive manner is in keeping with his belief that rather than being muffled by the dough, the flavor of the fruit should speak up.
That, Dodge said, is what is wrong with most fruitcake. It is too shy of real fruit flavor.
What most Americans think of as fruitcake is made with bits of fruit that looks as if they have either been canned, distressed or held in unpleasant surroundings.
Dodge said the secret to a good fruitcake, like the one he makes, is to candy the fruit peels yourself. Simmering the peels in water and then baking them in the oven makes the fruit flavor much stronger than buying peels that have been candied commercially.
And of course, he said, you have to add the red cranberries to the fruitcake.
The cranberry has a "bright tartness" that fits right into Dodge's philosophy of fruitcake. "A good fruitcake," he said "is supposed to be a medley of different flavors, colors and wonderful textures . . . the moisture of the cranberry, the chewiness of the orange peels. There is a lot going on in a good fruitcake."
He convinced me. And as I looked over the recipe I saw one other pleasing bit of information. Unlike other fruitcakes, Dodge's did not require that it be placed in hiding for several weeks while the ingredients aged. This was a fruitcake with no waiting period. An immediate gratification fruitcake.
So this year when the family gathers round the holiday spread, and someone asks, "Where are the cranberries?" I'll pass them a piece of fruitcake.
From "Baking With Jim Dodge" (Simon & Schuster, $25).
1/4 pound unsalted, soft butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup candied cranberries
1/3 cup candied lemon peel
1/4 cup candied orange peel
1/4 cup candied grapefruit peel
1 1/2 cups pecan halves
Heat oven to 325. Butter a 9-by-5-by-2-inch loaf pan and line it with parchment.