Smoked Maple Cranhattan (a holiday signature cocktail)

Holiday preparation is fun for me—all the excitement, decorating and special trimmings gives me an exuberant sense of energy. But the extra fussing can also pile on unwanted stress, and having a “signature” cocktail for the holidays relieves some of the pressure when guests will be joining the fun.

Sure, it’s nice to be able to offer up an open bar, and ours is fully stocked with everything our friends and neighbors might ask for (and a few things they probably wouldn’t—I’m looking at you, absinthe). Imagine what that would look like if I related it to other aspects of our entertaining though; say, the decorations or the table settings. Our guests don’t choose those; we decide based on the occasion. Too many drink options can overwhelm a guest and leave them standing there contemplating, when they’d probably rather just enjoy a well-thought-out adult beverage, and I’d rather be back in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.

Naturally, a few people may request their own favorite (a beer or glass of white wine, perhaps), but most of our friends enjoy the unique tipple that we put together for them, and I do my best to keep the flavors within the season. Not too strong, not too sweet, always with a special ingredient twist.

This year, I agonized over my signature cocktail, not because I fell short of ideas (as if that would ever happen in my crazy brain), but because my best experiments this year felt too similar to the signature drink last year, the Pom-Pom-Hattan. At first glance, this drink may seem almost the same, given that cranberry has a similar tartness to pomegranate and both drinks are made with bourbon. But friends, this is no ordinary bourbon, and it was pleading with me to become part of my signature drink.

Drop what you’re doing and go get a bottle of THIS.

Before I get carried away, I’d like to emphasize that this distiller is not paying endorsement fees for my shameless raving (and if they did, I’d probably just spend it on more bottles). This is just between us bourbon lovers, and it’s what friends do—share the news about great things we find. The maple notes in this bourbon are very smooth, excellent for sipping neat, and I’ve done my share so far this season. The smokiness is subtle, but present, and a little tang of cranberry (spiked with some spices) is a perfect accompaniment for a cocktail that celebrates the warmth of the holidays.

The spiced cranberry syrup takes a few minutes to make, but it’s easy.
The smoked maple bourbon and red vermouth definitely give this drink a Manhattan feel.

The ingredients are simple, though one required a bit of advance effort. Rather than use a store-bought cranberry juice (which I didn’t even consider, frankly), I made a simple syrup infused with fresh cranberries, cinnamon for warmth and pink peppercorns for depth. Simple syrup is exactly that—simple. Just equal parts by volume of sugar and water, and for this one, I added the flavor infusers long enough to draw out the color of the cranberry. The rest of the drink is very Manhattan-like; a quality brand of red vermouth and a few shakes of bitters, with a premium cocktail cherry as garnish.

At our house, we enjoyed these on Thanksgiving and again on Saturday night with appetizers before our Ultimate Thanksgiving Leftover Pizza. But just as with last year’s Pom-Pom-Hattan, I have no doubt that this smoky-sweet-tangy cocktail will carry us through all the way to New Year’s.

Cheers!

Ingredients (makes two cocktails)

3 oz. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon

1.5 oz. red (sweet) vermouth

1.0 oz. spiced cranberry simple syrup

2 dashes ginger bitters

Good quality cocktail cherries, such as Luxardo brand


Instructions

Measure bourbon, vermouth, spiced cranberry syrup and bitters into a mixing glass or shaker. Add one cup of ice and stir well for about 20 seconds. Strain into coupe (or martini) cocktail glasses and garnish each with a cherry.

Repeat as desired.


Spiced Cranberry Simple Syrup

My confession is that my first attempt at the simple syrup was not great. Cranberries contain a lot of pectin, and I let them simmer a bit too long, releasing all that thickener. It did not taste bad, but left an odd, almost sticky residue in my drink (serves me right for multi-tasking). Keep a close watch over it, as I did with the second batch, and it will be delicious!

In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Heat over medium heat, stirring until sugar is mostly dissolved. Add 1 cup rinsed cranberries, 2 pieces cinnamon stick and 1 rounded teaspoon pink peppercorns. Bring to a slight boil, and then reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer until the cranberries begin to pop and the syrup takes on a pinkish-red color. Remove from heat and let the berries steep for a few minutes before straining into a jar.

Use the cooked cranberries in another recipe if you wish or discard them.



Les’s Cranberry Sauce with Mandarin Oranges

In the 35 years I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinners, one of my favorite things to make is cranberry sauce. Although I have the same fondness for the jelled cranberry of Ocean Spray fame that we all grew up with (you know, the kind you used the can opener on one end and punched two holes in the other end and secretly thrilled to the sucking sound as it plopped out onto a plate), I instinctively knew early on that there had to be a better way.

Initially I began to make fresh cranberry sauce by boiling the berries in water and adding sugar. I wanted more flavor, and in 2002, I hit the jackpot with a website recipe that adapted a version originally published in Cooking Light magazine. That means my batch for Thanksgiving 2021 will be the 20th year I’ve made this delicious concoction.

It’s about sugar and apple cider (instead of water) offsetting the tart of the cranberries, and mandarin oranges adding back a different type of tart. If you make it, I guarantee you’ll be hooked. Terrie even loves it on vanilla ice cream.


Ingredients

12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries

1 cup of white sugar* (see notes)

½ cup of brown sugar

1 cup of apple cider*

½ jar of mandarin oranges*


*Notes

The original recipe called for 1½ cups of white sugar and ½ of brown sugar. I cut down the white sugar because it is plenty sweet. Either light or dark brown sugar works well.

Although I do typically use apple cider, the recipe certainly would work with water. Better yet if you can find it, as I’ve only been able to do a couple of times over the years, apple-cherry cider is the bomb!

I used half of a 23.5 ounce jar of Dole mandarin oranges; I like jars better because I feel that canned oranges have a “tell” of can flavor (coincidentally, not unlike Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce).


Instructions

Combine all ingredients, except Mandarin oranges, in a medium saucepan on medium heat and bring to a simmering boil over the course of 15 to 20 minutes. Turn down heat as cranberries begin to pop and work a spoon around the outside of the pot, crushing them into a sauce. When all berries have popped, remove from heat and refrigerate for an hour. Then, add the mandarin oranges to the slightly gelled sauce and refrigerate again until ready to serve.



Cranberry Sauce with Jalapeno and Orange

After much hemming and hawing, the verdict is in at our house—we are going big for Thanksgiving. No, I do not mean big in the gathering sense, because that is out of the question during a pandemic. It will only be the two of us, so our “big” means bold, less-than-traditional flavors. This departure from the usual has been my fantasy for several years, but other people get pretty attached to classic, traditional flavors and it almost feels cruel to spring big changes on friends and loved ones who have been building anticipation for the flavors they’ve come to expect at Thanksgiving.

As much as my husband, Les, and I also enjoy our own traditions (including taking turns with the preparation of the turkey—a pact we made when we got engaged), we are changing things up significantly this year, partly because we can do so without disappointing anyone, but also because it feels adventurous and fun in a year that has been pretty hum-drum. It’s Les’s year for the turkey, but rather than his usual brined, stuffed and basted 20-plus pounder, he has decided to do a dry spice rub and prepare our smaller turkey in his new charcoal smoker. And with these bold flavors on the bird, we are planning to keep pace with our sides and accoutrements, including the cranberry sauce.

Most years, we make everyone at the table happy with two different styles of homemade cranberry sauce. Les makes one that is sweetened with both brown and white sugars, simmered in apple cider, and accented with sections of mandarin orange. It’s slightly tangy, but mostly sweet, and more on the “saucy” side. I usually ask him to make extra so we have plenty left over to use as topping on vanilla ice cream. Yum. My version of cranberry sauce leans to the chunky, tart side, usually with spices such as cinnamon, clove and cardamom, and simmered in dry red wine. It is a decidedly “grownup” cranberry sauce, and stands in contrast to so much of the richness happening on the traditional table.

This year, however, we will have only this one cranberry sauce—bearing the bright and bold flavors of orange and jalapeno. Now, you may cringe at the suggestion of jalapeno, worried that it will be too intense, but let me assure you it’s a fantastic twist, a pleasant undertone that stands up to the bright citrus and tart cranberry, but does not overwhelm.

All three flavors are evident in this lively, festive sauce.

If you’ve never made your own cranberry sauce before, please let me show you how simple it is. All you need for this recipe is a large saucepan, a bag of cranberries, a large orange, a large fresh jalapeno and a cup of sugar. You can move this to the “done” column in less than half an hour, and it’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks (that is, if you are disciplined to not eat it straight from the fridge with a spoon). Let’s do this!

Made from scratch doesn’t seem so difficult, right?

Ingredients

12 oz. bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted for “losers”* (see notes)

1 cup real cane sugar (or slightly less if you prefer more tang)

1 large fresh organic orange*, washed

1 large fresh jalapeno pepper, seeds removed and minced*

A stingy pinch of kosher salt

A few twists of freshly ground coarse black pepper                                                                                                                                       


*Notes

Rinse the cranberries in a wide colander that allows you to inspect the quality of the berries. Discard any that are dried up, soft or otherwise questionable. Even with a brand-new bag of cranberries, I usually find about a dozen losers that don’t make the cut.

Organic orange is best here because we will be eating the peel, and pesticides are neither tasty nor safe to ingest. Whether you use organic or conventional, be sure you wash the orange well before stripping the peel.

If you are nervous about handling the raw jalapeno, feel free to slip on some rubber kitchen gloves for this part of the recipe, then carefully peel them off and into the trash once done. I can’t work well with gloves, so here’s my advice: the sooner you clear the irritating jalapeno oils from your skin, the less likely you are to accidentally touch your eyes, nose or lips and get a painful reminder of the intensity of the capsaicin oils. But if you wash with water right away, you risk spreading the oils around rather than breaking them down. Here’s a simple way to stop the burn before it begins—Dawn dish liquid. Yep, the same blue stuff they use in the TV ads to save the baby birds from oil spills. Any good dish liquid would probably do it, but Dawn is what I use. Gently rub the dish soap, full-strength, straight onto your dry hands, covering every part that may have touched the raw pepper, and give it a few seconds to begin dissolving the pepper oils. Be sure to rub the dish liquid under your nails and between your fingers. Then, wash and rinse your hands and the knife you used to cut the pepper.

It may seem odd to add any amount of salt and pepper, but remember that salt is an enhancer that punches up whatever flavors are in your dish. As for the pepper, it’s an easy way to add an extra little “bite” to underscore the surprising flavor of jalapeno. You will not taste black pepper. Trust me, it works.

Berries, sugar, orange, jalapeno and just a few twists of fresh black pepper. This is such an easy thing to make.

Instructions

The essence of orange is front and center, giving this cranberry sauce a bright and festive freshness, and the jalapeno is evident but not at all “hot.” It’s going to be a nice complement to the smoky flavors Les will be infusing into our turkey, but I’ll probably sneak into the fridge with my spoon for a few more taste tests (just to be sure) between now and Thanksgiving. And don’t be surprised if I find a way to use the leftovers in a post-holiday appetizer or something. As you all know, I cannot leave well enough alone. 😊


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