Prepare the cornbread. This may be done several days in advance. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside. Add to the skillet and allow to liquefy:
Cranberries are a wholly American fruit. Ask any American who lives in Europe or is studying abroad--cranberry juice, cranberry sauce, and whole cranberries are next to impossible to find. Apparently, there's a high-end shop in Paris that caters to homesick American expats, stocking boxed stuffing mix, turkeys, cranberry sauce, and peanut butter among other things. From what I hear, though, you'd better be prepared to sacrifice a month's paycheck on the altar of Thanksgiving should you decide to reenact the holiday overseas.
Cranberry sauce is just one of those can't-do-without-it Thanksgiving dishes. I think I can say without any doubt that I have never experienced a Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce.
Some people prefer the can-shaped variety--a wobbly, garnet-hued blob that looks like it hasn't seen a cranberry in a long time. Others favor a less processed, whole berry sauce. Others still opt for a relish. In any case, it's clear that cranberry sauce is a necessary player in the Thanksgiving drama.
It provides much-needed acidity to a table laden with starches and fat. Its bright tartness cuts through the rich holiday flavors and provides a bold and beautiful contrast to the many earth-toned dishes present. There aren't many foods that can stand up to turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie--but cranberry sauce can.
At our holiday table, we prefer a whole berry cranberry sauce--cranberries briefly simmered in simple syrup with various flavorings stirred in. We've found it's the best way to maintain the integrity of the cranberries and play up the sauce's potent flavor profile.
Here we've added Dijon mustard, black pepper, orange zest, and toasted walnuts, but you can add a variety of other things instead of or in addition to these ingredients. Try using minced shallots, dried cherries, a few tablespoons port or brandy, spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, or ginger, fresh herbs, or diced apples.
Pick over and remove any shriveled berries and debris:
1 pound cranberries
Rinse the berries. Bring to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar:
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
Boil the syrup 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and simmer very gently, uncovered, without stirring, until the berries are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add:
Zest of one orange
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Pour the berries into a serving dish and chill until completely cooled. Just before serving, sprinkle over the top of the cranberry sauce:
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped