Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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Cranberry ‘salad’ was Grandma’s best

Add some jiggly gelatin joy to your Thanksgiving

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
My grandmother's contribution to the Thanksgiving meal was always this cranberry gelatin salad with pineapple cream cheese dressing.
My grandmother's contribution to the Thanksgiving meal was always this cranberry gelatin salad with pineapple cream cheese dressing. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Our somewhat fundamentalist Sabbath-keeping church didn’t condone Christmas for various theological reasons, so Thanksgiving was our designated time to eat, drink and be merry. Preparing, sharing and enjoying special once-a-year dishes was the gift that we gave each other (or, more accurately, the gift that the women in our family gave everyone else).

Thanksgiving began the moment my grandmother opened her drawer full of Thanksgiving decorations. She had little wax pilgrims, a wax turkey and a misshapen wax pumpkin. She had colored plastic leaves and a delicate pilgrim family that stood up on stiff paper pants and dresses. She also saved my childish contributions: turkeys made from corks, leaves and pine cones and one lone turkey crafted from a toilet paper roll, a subtle reminder of how digestion works.

The drawer held a spicy aroma from the scented candles stored there. Even now, the smell of beeswax, cinnamon and cloves transports me right back to my grandmother’s house. When the drawer was pulled open, the outpouring of fragrant air would kindle a sense of anticipation, and I’d begin imagining our meal: the candied sweet potatoes, stuffing, soft white rolls and turkey with gravy followed by one slice each of pumpkin, apple and pecan pies.

But my favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner was Grandma’s festive cranberry salad. Before you express disbelief that I preferred a pile of lettuce over creamy mashed potatoes, rest assured that this was not a green salad but a 1950s-style gelatin salad with cranberries, pineapple and a cream cheese topping. It was the first thing I ate at the table and the first thing I sought a second serving of, if there was any left.

I’ve wondered about that cranberry salad since the last time Grandma made it for a family Thanksgiving dinner, which was about 30 years ago. I was thrilled when my father found my grandmother’s old recipe box and sure enough, tucked inside was the recipe. I immediately planned to make it for Thanksgiving this year, counting the months until November.


2 3-ounce packages strawberry or raspberry gelatin

1 cup boiling water

1 14-ounce can whole cranberry sauce

1 20-ounce can drained pineapple tidbits, with ½ cup juice or syrup reserved

½ cup port wine, other spirit or cranberry juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 cup finely diced celery (optional)

½ cup walnut pieces (optional)


1 8-ounce package cream cheese

1 cup unwhipped whipping cream

1 8-ounce can drained crushed pineapple

¼ to 1/3 cup powdered sugar (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

Well, Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and the salad is made, and it’s just the thing to feed a crowd! It’s sweet enough to eat with the desserts, but not so sweet that it can’t also be enjoyed with dinner. My grandmother always served it on its own plate, nestled atop a leaf of lettuce, a sharp-edged red-and-white rectangle of jiggly gelatin goodness.

My version didn’t turn out quite like my grandmother’s, even though I followed the recipe for once. Well, mostly. It was still good enough to bring to book club (and still good enough to grab a spoonful every time I open the fridge). My rendition is less firmly jelled, though solid enough to remove from the pan in a single piece if you get a pie-server firmly under the Jell-O. The topping is softer than I remember, but that’s because I was impatient and ate it immediately instead of chilling it first.

And there’s definitely one thing missing: the crunch of finely diced celery, Grandma’s signature ingredient. She added celery to everything from sandwich filling to salads and was quite fond of a loud munch on a celery stick, much to my grandfather’s annoyance. Anyhow, since my husband and daughter don’t relish celery, I omitted it and included it as an optional add-in for all you celery fans.

The recipe says to add 1 cup of boiling water to two packages strawberry Jell-O, but doesn’t say whether the packages should be 3-ounce or 6-ounce. I chose to use 3-ounce packages because this is a midcentury recipe and the further you travel back in time, the smaller things get. It’s science.

I stirred the gelatin around in the boiling water in a 9-by-13-inch pan until it dissolved, then added ½ cup juice or syrup reserved from a 20-ounce can of pineapple tidbits along with 1 tablespoon lemon juice. The recipe calls for ½ cup port to be added now, but I didn’t have port. I did have my father’s homemade peach cordial, which I figured was the next best thing (if not better). Grandma’s recipe says water is also fine, but I think cranberry juice would add more oomph.

Next, mix in a 14-ounce can of whole cranberry sauce. There’s no chemical reason you can’t use cranberry jelly, but the whole cranberries add little bursts of pleasing tartness. The instructions say to let it partially set before adding the drained pineapple tidbits. I put it in the fridge for about 40 minutes and tried to add the pineapple then, but it was already too jelled, and I ended up with an ever-so-slightly mushy gelatin layer that didn’t have the same easy slice-ability of Grandma’s salad. Next time I make this, I’ll add the pineapple with the cranberries.

If you want to add celery or nuts, do it while the Jell-O is still liquid, then chill for 2 to 4 hours or until fully firm. Ideally, the whole shebang, topping and all, should be refrigerated overnight for maximum solidity.

For the topping, the recipe says to use a hand mixer to whip one 8-ounce package of cream cheese with 1 cup whipping cream and one well-drained 8-ounce can of crushed pineapple. There’s no added sugar in the topping, which, together with the celery, might push this into side-dish-for-turkey status. However, I found that I wanted a little sweetness, so I added a scant ¼ cup of powdered sugar. Next time, I might also reduce the cream to 2/3 cup, because this made quite a lot of topping relative to the amount of gelatin. But the topping is delicious, so I’m not really complaining.

Who’s going to know the difference, anyway, except for you and me and Grandma? Just don’t tell her I left out the celery.