March 4, 2010

Don't look past Maine's variety of cranberry

— Scarlet-hued and glossy, cranberries are our most beautiful fruit. Native to the New World, cranberries were harvested by Maine Indian tribes and later by European settlers who established a small commercial cranberry industry in the state in the early 1900s.

The industry went into decline, but was reborn around 1989, and now upwards of 40 farms are growing the tart scarlet fruits in bogs, most of which are located in Down East Washington County.

''Mainers have come to expect more from local growers,'' says Nan Bradshaw of Bradshaw's Cranberry Farm in Dennysville. ''We use a different variety of cranberries than they do in Massachusetts, and the result is a larger, more colorful and flavorful berry.''

They are indeed larger and very flavorful, but if you can't get Maine berries, use the standard bagged cranberries from Massachusetts or Wisconsin.

BASIC CRANBERRY SAUCE

In a medium saucepan, combine 12 ounces (1 standard bag) cranberries, ¾ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until berries are soft, about 10 minutes. Cool and refrigerate in a covered container for up to 10 days. Makes 2 cups.

SLICE OF MAINE CRANBERRY-APPLE PIE

Apples and cranberries, along with sweet spice and rum, compose a harmonious symphony of Maine seasonal flavors. This pie makes a sensational Thanksgiving dessert.

Makes one 9- or 10-inch pie

Pastry dough for a double-crust pie (see note)

CRANBERRY LAYER:

1 cup fresh cranberries

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

2 tablespoons dark rum

APPLE LAYER:

1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 2 teaspoons

2 tablespoons flour

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/3 cup chopped walnuts

3 to 4 cups thinly sliced peeled and cored semi-sweet apples such as Cortland, Macoun or Empire (about 11/4 pounds)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon milk, any type, for glaze

If using homemade dough, roll half of pastry out to a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured board. Ease into a 9- or 10-inch pie plate. Roll out the second disc of pastry and slip onto a rimless cooking sheet. Refrigerate while making fillings.

For cranberry layer, combine cranberries, two sugars and orange juice in a medium-sized nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer uncovered until the berries pop and the mixture reduces and thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in orange zest, nutmeg and rum. Set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together the 1/2 cup sugar, flour, cinnamon and walnuts. Add sliced apples and toss until well combined.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and position rack in the lower third of the oven. Spoon cranberry mixture into prepared pie shell and spread to make an even layer. Top with apple mixture, mounding them up in the center. Cut butter into several pieces and distribute it over the apples. Drape top crust over, and trim overhanging dough to 3/4-inch all around. Turn edges under and crimp or flute to seal.

Use a sharp knife to cut several steam vents. Brush top crust with the milk and sprinkle with remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake until crust is golden brown and the juices bubble through the vents, about 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least one hour.

Serve slightly warm, or cool for several hours and serve at room temperature.

NOTE: Consult a general purpose cookbook such as ''The Joy of Cooking'' for a pastry recipe, or use purchased refrigerated crusts.

CRANBERRY-ORANGE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

The cake unmolds to reveal a gorgeous, glistening whole-berry cranberry sauce topping, and the cake layer is a light, not-too-sweet version of an eggy sponge cake with a tiny bit of cornmeal added for that pleasing crumbly texture. Tie it all together with orange liqueur-spiked whipped cream to make a smashing finish to almost any autumn dinner.

FRUIT LAYER:

2/3 cup whole berry cranberry sauce (see note)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into several pieces

6 very thin orange slices, seeds removed

CAKE LAYER:

1/4 cup pecans

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon cornmeal

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

ORANGE CREAM:

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons orange liqueur

Have ready a 9-inch round buttered cake pan. In a medium saucepan, combine the cranberry sauce, butter and orange slices. Simmer over medium heat, stirring gently, until jelly and butter melt and oranges are slightly softened. Pour into pan and reposition oranges to create an even layer.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pulse pecans in a food processor with 1 tablespoon of the flour. Transfer nuts to a bowl and whisk with remaining flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt to blend.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat eggs with sugar until mixture is light and doubled in volume. Beat in orange juice zest and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, add flour and mix just until no specks of flour remain. Pour batter over cranberry layer, smoothing top.

Bake in center of preheated oven until cake is golden and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in the pan for 3 minutes. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it, and then immediately invert cake onto a serving platter. Leave the pan on the cake for a few minutes, then lift it off. If any topping clings to the pan, simply transfer it to the top of the cake.

Whip cream with powdered sugar and liqueur to soft peaks. Serve cake warm or at room temperature, topped with the orange cream.

NOTE: Use Basic Cranberry sauce or canned whole berry sauce.

Brooke Dojny is author or co-author of more than a dozen cookbooks, most recently ''The New England Clam Shack Cookbook'' (Storey 2008). She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula.

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