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Cranberry Hand Pies: A Winter Necessity

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Cranberry Hand Pies: A Winter Necessity

December 11, 2023

Forage your cranberries or buy them at the market—this is your invitation to bake buttery cranberry hand pies before the year ends. While cranberry sauce is popular on Thanksgiving and Indigenous People’s Day, its inclusion in that meal of meals is often the only time native cranberries appear on most menus. It’s a too-fleeting moment of celebration for a cold-weather fruit that deserves more love. It’s a mystery, because cranberries’ festive redness and complex flavor are cheering in the months when the nights are longest. Let’s eat more cranberries. They’re delicious, nutritious, and they belong to winter.

These hand pies need only be tasted once to persuade you.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: A cranberry harvest in British Columbia, Canada. Photograph by Vincent Mounier.

In North America, American cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are cultivated on both coasts (and in the middle), from British Columbia through Washington and Oregon in the west, in Wisconsin, and in Massachusetts and New Jersey in the east. The low, sprawling shrublets are native to acidic bogs and can be hand-picked in late fall.

Above: Foraging for wild cranberries in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.
Above: Wild cranberries, ripe in November.
Above: A lunchbox ($25.99 from U-Konserve) of cranberry and juniper hand pies.

Their tart flavor and tannic backbone make cranberries remarkably versatile. Why stop at sauce? In a previous piece we extolled their virtues via a flurry of recipes for holiday-ready cranberry drinks and cocktails. In that story you’ll find syrups and infusions, a ferment, and addictively chewy candied cranberries.

But today we’re talking pies. Little ones.

Above: Fresh-baked cranberry hand pies. Not too sweet, not too sour. Just right.

Hand pies are perhaps the most soothing pastry of all. Having a pie all to yourself frees you from the tyranny of having to share. Every single bite is yours. Also, they’re easy to serve at parties. This pie crust is exceptionally buttery, giving way in flakes as you sink your teeth into its shell. The filling of cranberries with just enough sugar to sweeten them is very more-ish. It’s also adaptable: I have seasoned the filling with blood orange zest, juniper, ground spicebush, fir (your fresh-cut holiday tree has aromatic, edible needles), and even pine cone jam. You can also add pieces of cooked apple, pear, or quince.

Above: A cranberry hand pie variation with pine cone jam.
Above: Cranberry filling (with cooked apple pieces), on egg wash-brushed pastry.
Above: A cold New Year’s beach and a cranberry pie.

Cranberry Hand Pies

Makes 14 x 3-inch round pies (or 16 x 4-inch, half-moon pies)

Butter and half-and-half make the pastry meltingly tender—embrace them. Chilling is essential for a crisp texture. For the filling’s seasonal flavorings, pair the orange zest with juniper or fir. Spicebush works beautifully instead of the zest.

The pies freeze well. For a decadent solitary breakfast, defrost in a microwave, then crisp up in hot oven or toaster oven.

Pastry

  • 10 oz (2½  sticks) unsalted butter, very cold (I like Land O’ Lakes)
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt salt
  • 2 cups/8.8 oz all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the rolling surface
  • 6 Tablespoons half-and-half

Filling

  • 10 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
  • ½ cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon packed, microplaned orange zest/2 teaspoons ground spicebush
  • 1½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 8 juniper berries, ground finely (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon ground fir needles (optional)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar for dusting

For the pastry: Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Using the coarse side of a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour (no grater? Cut it into small cubes). Work the butter and flour between your fingertips until the mixture resembles evenly coarse crumbs (with a few larger pieces allowed). Yes, you can also toss it all into a food processor and spin.

Pour in the Half and Half and work with a wooden spoon a few times. Bring the pastry together into a fat disc with your hands, taking care to use as few motions as possible (the more you work it the less tender will become when baking).

Wrap and chill the pastry until solid—at least 2 hours, and as long as 24 (or freeze for later use). You can do this ahead.

For the filling: Place the cranberries with the sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a pot over medium-high heat. Stir, and cover. You’ll hear some popping noises as some of the cranberries split in the heat. Gradually their juices will be drawn out. When their liquid is boiling, lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until the fruit is soft and saucy, about 6 minutes. Stir in the orange zest (or spicebush), and the juniper or fir, if using.

In a cup stir the cornstarch into 2 more tablespoons of water. When it is smooth, pour this slurry into the hot cranberry mixture and stir until it is thick—about 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Spoon the filling into a bowl, and transfer to the fridge to chill.

To make: Preheat the oven to 400’F. Cover a large baking sheet in parchment paper.

Roll out the Pastry: Remove the pastry from the fridge about 15 minutes before you roll it out. Dust a clean surface with flour and roll out to approximately 1/8 inch. Press out as many 3-inch shapes as you can. Gather up remaining pastry fragments, work into a ball with your hands, and chill for 10 minutes before rolling out. Press out extra shapes for a total of 28 (for 14 hand pies). Lay all the pressed-out circles on the baking sheet and chill in the fridge for 10 minutes.

Beat the egg in a small bowl.

To assemble: Remove the baking sheet from the fridge. Using a pastry brush, swipe a border of egg wash around the edges of half the rounds. Place a heaped tablespoonful of filling into the center. Carefully cover with a free pastry round, pressing down firmly on the edges to make them stick. When all have been covered and pressed, crimp the edges with the tines of fork.

(For making half-moon hand pies, fill just one side of the pastry circle and fold the empty half over the filling, pressing down as above.)

Return to the fridge and chill for 10 minutes.

Just before baking, brush the pies with egg wash. Cut a slit in each, and dust with sugar.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until the pastry is dark golden and the pies are lightly puffed. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack.

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Frequently asked questions

What is the recipe for cranberry hand pies?

You can find the recipe for cranberry hand pies on the Gardenista website at https://www.gardenista.com/posts/cranberry-hand-pies-recipe/

What ingredients are needed for the cranberry hand pies?

The ingredients for cranberry hand pies include cranberries, sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch, salt, refrigerated pie crusts, and an egg.

How do you make cranberry filling for the hand pies?

To make the cranberry filling, you need to cook cranberries, sugar, lemon juice, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan until thickened.

How do you assemble the hand pies?

To assemble the hand pies, you need to roll out the pie crusts, cut them into circles, spoon the cranberry filling onto one side of each circle, fold the circles in half, and seal the edges with a fork.

How do you bake the cranberry hand pies?

To bake the cranberry hand pies, preheat the oven, place the pies on a baking sheet, brush them with an egg wash, and bake until golden brown.

Can the cranberry hand pies be made ahead of time?

Yes, you can make the cranberry hand pies ahead of time. After assembling them, you can refrigerate them for up to 24 hours before baking.

How should the cranberry hand pies be stored?

The cranberry hand pies can be stored at room temperature for a day or two. If you want to keep them longer, it's best to refrigerate them in an airtight container.

Can the cranberry hand pies be frozen?

Yes, you can freeze the cranberry hand pies before baking. Place them on a baking sheet, freeze until firm, transfer to freezer bags, and store for up to 3 months. Bake them from frozen when ready to serve.

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