Photo: AbbieImages (iStock)

It’s not like my family consisted of Thanksgiving gourmets or anything. We weren’t a fancy people. The crescent rolls came from Pillsbury, the pies sometimes from Bakers Square, the gravy base from a packet. But there were some things my parents (mainly my mother) would never have dreamed of compromising on: the stuffing, for example, and the cranberries.

I didn’t realize how good I had it at my traditional Thanksgiving day meal (although everybody’s home version is probably their favorite, right?) until I had a long-term boyfriend whose annual turkey dinner vastly differed from mine. We used to hit his family’s first every year, then hightail it to my parents’ house for what was in my mind, the real dinner. His side served Stove Top stuffing—yes, I am a fan of it in casseroles, but I much preferred my mom’s apple stuffing, or even my grandma’s oyster version, to the red box on the big day itself. Their turkey was powder-dry. And then, the horror of the canned, jellied cranberry sauce. I had never even seen such a thing. (This same boyfriend once tried to recreate his family’s holiday splendor at home by making the classic green-bean casserole with raw—not blanched, or frozen—green beans. The operative word was crunchy.)

The wobbly crimson substance added nothing to my Thanksgiving enjoyment, unlike my mother’s lemon-zested, multi-spiced version. There was no delightful pop of berry augmenting my perfect turkey-stuffing-cranberry forkful. And here’s the part that drives me especially crazy about canned cranberry sauce: Making your own cranberry sauce from scratch is so easy! Even the recipe on the fresh berry bag is just cranberries, water, and sugar. My mom liked to zest it up with orange juice, citrus rind, vanilla, and a cinnamon stick or two. Cranberries become a canvas for you to decorate with seasoning, whether you favor orange or lemon zest, cinnamon or nutmeg, brown sugar or white, ginger or cloves. We used to add apples sometimes.

The point is, you can experiment. Go crazy. If you are dumping cranberry sauce out of a can onto a table, what are your options? Horizontal or vertical. Sliced or no. You can try to add a spring of something green for garnish, but you won’t be fooling anyone.

If you’ve never made homemade cranberry sauce, I urge you to try this recipe out this year and I suspect you’ll become an instant convert—easier than pie, and it makes your kitchen smell amazing. And it’s almost as simple as opening a can, making store-bought canberry sauce absolutely irrelevant.

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Superior Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Photo: Gwen Ihnat

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  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar (The cranberry bag says one cup each of sugar and water, but I take it down a notch due to the added sugar in the orange juice.)
  • 1 (12 oz.) bag cranberries
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon powder (can also throw in your nutmeg, et al. here, for an extra teaspoon of spice total)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 Tbsp. zest from lemon and/or orange

Dissolve sugar into water over medium heat in saucepan. When it begins to boil, dump in cranberries. When that begins to boil, add spices and let cook at a slightly lower heat for about 10 minutes, when the cranberries begin to pop (in and of itself a heavenly experience). Cool, top with zest and serve.

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