Jellied cranberry sauce—indented by the ridges of the can from which it slithers—is my secret Thanksgiving love. It’s not the flavor that keeps drawing me back, since the overt, one-note sweetness dominates the fruity tang. I’m more captivated by its physical qualities: the alluring smoothness, the playful jiggle, and the way the semitranslucent ruby gel catches the light. This year I set out to create a DIY version with those attributes and more. I’d be in full control of the sugar, and the sky would be the limit in terms of flavoring and molding options.
I started by adding a modest amount of granulated sugar along with a little salt to a saucepan filled with 12 ounces of fresh cranberries. I poured in 3 cups of water, simmered the mixture until the berries popped, and then strained out the skins and seeds. After stirring in a whisper of vanilla to bring everything to life, I poured the garnet liquid into a mold and chilled it for 4 hours.
It gelled beautifully. That’s because cranberries are both rich in pectin and naturally acidic. Pectin is a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of fruit; these walls break down when the fruit is heated, releasing the pectin. In a sugary, acidic environment, the long-chain molecules interact and tangle, trapping liquid and dissolved sugar to form a gel as the mixture cools.
And yet, this attempt had neither the coveted smoothness nor the translucence of the canned stuff. Instead, it was somewhat grainy and as stodgy and opaque as tomato paste.