If there’s one flavor combination that channels the spirit of Thanksgiving, it’s cranberries and oranges. Mouth-puckeringly tart cranberries and sweet yet zingy citrus turn up in all kinds of Thanksgiving dishes, from stuffing to salads. And how can we forget cranberry sauce, that indispensable accoutrement to turkey, which can be a bit dry without a little saucy help?
My late mother’s cranberry sauce was simply this: a bag of fresh, whole cranberries boiled with 2 cups of orange juice and a little sugar. It was such a beautiful color and provided the perfect tangy-sweet counterpoint for the heavier flavors of a Thanksgiving meal, like sweet potatoes, green-bean casserole and dressing. Mom’s cranberry sauce was like a bright ray of sunshine cutting through a cloudy fall day. That’s what these muffins are: a ray of sunshine for the taste buds.
Cranberry and orange is also a classic flavor combination for muffins, which were invented to help us feel better about eating cake in the morning. These muffins would make a dandy Thanksgiving Day breakfast. You can bake them the night before, while you’re peeling 3,000 potatoes and brining a 45-pound turkey. They’re a great breakfast-on-the-go, so you can easily eat them while you’re chopping a pound of sage and or making a gallon of gravy. No problem!
I like these muffins because they’re not too sweet. This gives the vague illusion of healthfulness, which is necessary to maintain during the holidays. (The illusion, not the healthiness.) I’m not saying that they’re not sweet, because they’ve got 1¼ cups sugar. But they’re not cloying. The whole cranberries pop in your mouth and provide a sharp hit of ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C). The orange juice makes them moist but I took this recipe a step further and replaced the milk with eggnog. I’m not 100 percent sure you can taste the eggnog in the finished product — it’s subtle — but I’m quite pleased to know it’s there.
Fresh cranberries are best for these muffins. You can use frozen cranberries in the recipe, but you’d need to cook the muffins a little longer, and then you’re playing a game of chicken (or should that be turkey?) with the heat. You don’t want a muffin that’s raw on the inside while being too dark brown on the outside. You can also use dried cranberries but you should soak the cranberries in hot water for 10 minutes to moisten them up. I imagine orange-infused dried cranberries might be tasty, if a little chewy, but I do love that burst of invigorating cranberry flavor that comes from using fresh berries.
Set your oven to 425 degrees and use butter to grease 16 muffin cups (or use cupcake liners). Zest one orange, all the way around. This should produce a very generous tablespoon of zest. Next, squeeze the juice out of both halves of the orange, which should give you ¼ cup juice, more or less. Set the zest and the juice aside. Whisk together 2½ cups flour, 1¼ cup sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together ½ cup vegetable oil, 2 large eggs, ½ cup eggnog, 1 teaspoon vanilla and the orange juice and orange zest. Add the wet ingredients all at once to the dry ingredients and stir until just moistened, then fold in 2 cups of cranberries.
Guess what I did while I was making this recipe? I forgot to include the cranberries, so I had to scrape all the dough out of the muffin tins and scoop it back into the mixing bowl. The dough is a bit sticky and hard to get into the muffin cups, so be patient. Resist the temptation to overfill, although I have never been able to resist it myself. My muffins look like they’re wearing little hats. I’ve also never been able to get a really voluminous muffin top like you’d see in a bakery, even though I have tried letting the muffins rest for 10 minutes before popping them in the oven. This supposedly gives the baking powder extra time to provide that lift, but I have not seen it work in practice. Ah well, I’ll take flavor over puffery any day.
Bake the muffins at 425 degrees for five minutes and then reduce the temperature to 375 and bake for another 15 minutes. They’re ready to come out when they’re golden on top and a toothpick poked in the middle comes out clean. Remove the cupcakes from the tins as soon as you reasonably can without singeing your fingers and let them cool on a wire rack. Give them a little sprinkling of sugar, like autumn frost. I like to cut them in half and eat them with a little butter, but some folks find the idea of butter on a muffin abhorrent. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that point. (I mean, when does butter make a baked good worse?)
The muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days, or in the refrigerator for five days, although refrigeration can affect the flavor. However, I’m pretty sure that these muffins won’t ever make it into long-term storage. When you serve the muffins, remember to tell this timeless joke: Two muffins were in the oven and one says, “Wow, it’s hot in here!” and the other muffin says, “Oh my gosh, a talking muffin!”
Cranberry Orange Muffins
2½ cups flour
1¼ cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
½ cup eggnog
1 teaspoon vanilla
Zest of 1 orange (a heaping tablespoon)
¼ cup orange juice
2 cups whole cranberries
Sugar for sprinkling
Set oven to 425 degrees and generously butter 16 muffin cups (or use cupcake liners). Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, eggs, eggnog, orange juice, vanilla and orange zest. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients all at once and mix until just moistened. Fold in cranberries. Spoon into prepared muffin cups or cupcake liners. Bake for five minutes at 425 then reduce temperature to 375. Bake for 15 minutes or until tops are golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from tins and cool on wire rack. Sprinkle with sugar. Muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.