Friday, November 28, 2008

A Festive Cranberry Cocktail

I realized yesterday that I have not eaten turkey on Thanksgiving since I moved out of my parents’ house in 1991. It’s not that I’m a vegetarian or that I even have anything against turkey, but I guess I’ve always been a rebel when it comes to traditional holiday food. From the time I was a teenager, I always made pizza for my family each year on Christmas, serving it on the good china with real silverware. We all loved it, so much so that I wondered why we ever felt compelled to do the standard turkey&potatoes routine for Thanksgiving each year which always seemed so boring in comparison. This was the beginning of my rebellion against the confines of the traditional holiday menu.


From the time I was living on my own, I have usually hosted Thanksgiving at my place, so the menu planning is up to me. For many years I prepared a scrumptious Italian feast, one which often involved a lasagna with homemade spinach noodles and a real Bolognese sauce that completely erased any thoughts of turkey from anyone’s mind. There were years when I did my own riffs on the typical Thanksgiving side dishes to satisfy the cravings of those wanting a more traditional holiday meal. I have roasted countless root vegetables and transformed all varieties of winter squash into fabulous dishes from soup to dessert. I never tire of doing variations on mashed potatoes, and I have built entire meals around a hearty stuffing as the main course. But no turkey anywhere. By now it’s almost become a point of pride.

This year was no different in wanting to buck the turkey trend, as several friends and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Chinatown. We had been looking forward to it for weeks, excited by the prospect of a day to hang out together and eat yummy Chinese food, yet there would be no dirty dishes for anyone to deal with. But last night, I started to get this weird pang for cranberries. This is strange since I’ve never had any particular affinity for cranberry sauce, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I really wanted to have cranberries today, which felt uncomfortably traditional to me. Perhaps this craving stemmed from being tired and thirsty at the end of a long day, having played two performances of “South Pacific”, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted those tart little rubies to be soaked in rum!


My mind started jumping around, scrolling through cranberry-based cocktails I’ve had over the years, and I remembered a fabulous Cranberry Daquiri at Gramercy Tavern four years ago. This was an exceedingly lovely drink, one which combined a tangy-sweet cranberry syrup with rum and lime, with a few of the syrup-steeped cranberries floating on the top of the drink as a garnish. It was so pretty and festive, not to mention delicious. And I knew that THAT was exactly what I wanted.

I got up early this morning to go running to offset this afternoon’s Chinatown feast, and by 10:30 a.m. I was walking in my apartment with two kinds of rum and a bag of fresh cranberries. I was ready for action, eager to recreate my own version of this cranberry daquiri living large in my memory. I wanted to make sure I gave you a great cocktail recipe to have in your repertoire for the holiday season, a drink which can carry you quite happily from Thanksgiving all the way to New Year's, and I knew this would fit the bill if I could recreate it successfully enough.

A simple syrup made of equal parts sugar and water became much more complex with the addition of cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger slices and grated orange zest. When the mixture came to a boil, the cranberries were thrown in and simmered until they began to burst. The sound was not unlike the rat-a-tat-tat of fresh popcorn popping away. These cranberries were exploding with joy as they bathed in this spicy syrup, almost as if they knew they were just moments away from being transformed into the most marvelous cocktail!

Since I had invited Julie and Alissa to come sample my cranberry daquiri before we headed downtown to meet the others, I had to work quickly. Chilling the syrup in an ice water bath cooled it to room temperature in a short space of time. Throwing in a cup of light rum also helped bring the temperature down quickly!

Once the syrup had cooled, I was ready to host my own impromptu cocktail party. I had the martini glasses chilled when the girls arrived, so all I had to do was combine some of the cranberry syrup with dark rum and fresh lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. I gave this mixture a good thirty shakes and strained it into the chilled glasses, garnishing each drink with a few of the rum-plumped cranberries. I took a sip, just to make sure I'd balanced the drink properly. It was exactly the tart-and-sweet concoction I'd been hoping to create, with just a bit of gingery kick to it.

Julie and Alissa also agreed that this cranberry daquiri was an excellent holiday cocktail, one which will have to make repeat appearances throughout the next few weeks. In fact, it was so festive and celebratory, I was sorely tempted to fill a flask with this gorgeous elixir and bring it to Chinatown just so I could share it with the other friends at our Thanksgiving table! We raised our glasses to great friendships and to the official beginning of the holiday season, and my little kitchen was alive with laughter and merriment as we enjoyed our pretty drinks down to the last drops. My heart was filled with gratitude for all of my fabulous friends who make my life in the city so much more interesting and wonderful. With or without a cranberry daquiri, I think that’s definitely worth celebrating!

Inspired by the Cranberry Daquiri from Gramercy Tavern, ca. 2004.

For the cranberry syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 cinnamon sticks
a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into ¼-inch thick slices
the grated zest of 1 orange
1 cup fresh cranberries
1-½ cups light rum

For each drink:
1 ounce prepared cranberry syrup
2 ounces dark rum
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
a few drunken cranberries, for garnish

Prepare the syrup by combining the sugar and water in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then add the cinnamon sticks, ginger slices, and orange zest. Bring to a boil and then add cranberries. Simmer the cranberries until they begin to pop, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large glass measuring cup and stir in the 1-½ cups of light rum. Let the syrup cool to room temperature. (You can speed this up by placing the measuring cup in a large bowl filled with ice and water.)

Chill a cocktail glass for each person by filling it with a few ice cubes and some cold water for a few minutes. Toss out the ice water at the very last moment, just to keep the glass as cold as possible.

For each drink, combine the cranberry syrup, dark rum and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously to thoroughly combine and strain into the chilled glass. (I like to do 30 shakes myself, which not only blends everything completely but also allows the ice cubes to break down so that little tiny flecks of ice crystals keep your drink icy cold.) Garnish with a few of the drunken cranberries. Take a sip and feel thankful.

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