It can be hard to find really good, cranberry-centric desserts. They tend to be really sweet to counteract the tartness of fresh cranberries, or they’re mixed with other fruit that dilute and distract from the cranberry flavor, or they have a tiny smattering of dried cranberries that hardly gets noticed at all. While there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of desserts, and I’m sure I’ll have all 3 versions on this blog at some point, for this recipe I wanted a cake that highlighted the cranberry without making my teeth hurt from the sugar or bringing on a pucker.
So I started with a classic pound cake recipe from King Arthur Flour, dolloped a light, chunky cranberry sauce throughout 3 layers of the batter, and gave it a good swirl to distribute as much cranberry flavor as possible. The result was a moist pound cake with pools of tart, jammy cranberries in every slice.
The cake is quick to make, simple enough for a late breakfast, and it perfumes the house to smell like the holiday season. Like most pound cakes, it gets better with a day or two as the flavors deepen and meld, so it makes a wonderful holiday gift for friends, neighbors, teachers and family. Best of all, you can use leftover cranberry sauce to speed up the process (and to figure out once and for all what to do with it all). Just make sure to thin it with a bit of water or juice until it’s the consistency of a loose jam, which will help the swirling process. Like any recipe, this can be tweaked and adapted however you feel— stir in toasted, chopped nuts, substitute other berries or fruit jams, or my personal preference, drizzle it with Grand Marnier glaze (powdered sugar and a splash of liqueur, whisked until smooth). Whatever variations you choose, just make sure to incorporate this into your holiday baking traditions. Enjoy!
notes about the recipe:
King Arthur notes the importance of beating air into the first three stages of the cake: butter until pale and fluffy, then the butter sugar mixture, and finally when the eggs are mixed in one at a time. The more air bubbles that are mixed in, the lighter the final cake will be.
make sure to use a parchment paper sling for this cake, in case any of the cranberry sauce leaks out of the sides and sticks to the pan. The sling is a reliable way to get the cake out of the pan in one beautiful piece!
cranberry swirl pound cake
makes one 9" x 5" loaf cake | pound cake recipe from King Arthur Flour
1 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
pinch of salt
1 cup (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature (if using unsalted butter, increase the salt to 1 tsp total)
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
zest of 1 orange
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon brandy, sherry, rum, or the liqueur of your choice, optional
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, bring sugar, cranberries, orange juice and a pinch of salt to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook, stirring and mashing the cranberries against the side of the pan, until the cranberries are soft and the sauce has thickened, about 10- 15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat when it has thickened to the consistency of a loose, chunky strawberry jam (too watery will make the cake soggy, while too thick will be hard to swirl). Set aside to cool and proceed to the cake.
Preheat your oven to 350°F. To make a parchment paper sling, cut a 9” x 14” piece of parchment paper and lay it in a 9" x 5" loaf pan, trimming the sides if necessary for a smooth fit. Lightly grease the paper and exposed edges of the loaf pan.
In a large bowl, beat the butter until very light. Beat in the sugar gradually and then the eggs, one by one. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, add the orange zest, and beat until the mixture is very light and fluffy.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
In another small bowl, whisk together the milk, alcohol of your choice, and extract.
Alternately add the wet and dry ingredients to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, starting and ending with the flour. Stir to combine after each addition.
Pour a third of the batter into the prepared pan and spoon a third of the cranberry sauce on top in small, separate dollops. Repeat this process 2 more times, ending with dollops of cranberry sauce on the very top of the cake (I tend to go with bigger dollops on the top, so there's more jam to see on the surface when the cake puffs and bakes). With a skewer or thin knife, swirl the cranberry sauce and batter together for a marbled effect (this article has a good figure-8 technique).
Bake the cake for 60 to 65 minutes, until it springs back when pressed lightly in on top, and a long toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. If the cake appears to be browning too quickly, tent it with foil for the final 15 minutes of baking.
Remove the cake from the oven, and loosen its edges with a sharp knife. Wait 5 minutes, then carefully lift the parchment paper sling out of the pan onto a rack to cool.