At one point in my meandering cooking career, I found myself working in a French pastry shop in California. Although the owner was Swiss, nearly everything we produced was classical French: croissants, brioches, eclairs, that sort of thing. There were fresh fruit tarts, chocolate gateaux and all kinds of puff-pastry delights, everything a self-respecting Francophile could dream of.
For Christmas, we made masses of buches de Noel, Yule logs filled with buttercream and decorated with marzipan mushrooms. At Easter, we made all kinds of egg-shaped confections.
But for Thanksgiving, there was not one traditional American standard item. No apple pies, no pumpkin pies, no pecan pies. People came in anyway, determined to pick up some sort of Thanksgiving dessert, along with breakfast pastries and breads for the hungry hordes of gathering relatives.
At a certain point, with such a high demand, we began to tell them what they wanted to hear. There was one display case that featured a few Viennese and Swiss specialties. Most of them were sturdy, somewhat somber-looking nut tortes.
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They would spot the Linzer torte, a lattice-topped, raspberry-jam-filled affair, made with a marvelous dough of ground hazelnuts and almonds. Or the Engadiner Nusstorte, with its sweet filling of walnuts and honey in a burnished caramelized sauce, would catch their attention.
For Thanksgiving this year, feeling a bit nostalgic, I had Linzer torte on my mind. I was determined to make one, only mine would be revolutionary, filled with cranberry jam instead of apricot or raspberry, the way I used to sell them.
I wanted the rich, nutty flavor of a European torte, but cranberries, I reasoned, would make it almost American. The result of the unconventional pairing was so satisfying, it may well become an annual habit.
Cranberry Linzer Torte
For the filling:
12 ounces cranberries
2 cups sugar
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange, plus water to equal 3/4 cup
Pinch of salt
For the crust:
3/4 cup whole hazelnuts
3/4 cup whole almonds
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
3/4 cup sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 large egg, plus 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, optional
MAKE the filling: Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Lower heat to a brisk simmer and stir frequently, until cranberries burst. Continue cooking, mashing fruit a bit with the back of a spoon, until thick as jam, about 30 minutes. Set aside. (Filling may be prepared in advance.)
HEAT oven to 400 degrees. Place hazelnuts and almonds on a baking sheet and bake about 10 minutes, until well browned. Rub skins off hazelnuts while still warm, discarding skins. Cool nuts, then grind finely in a food processor, adding 3 tablespoons of flour to keep them from becoming oily. (Nuts should have the texture of coarse cornmeal.) Set aside.
MAKE the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer with whisk attachment, combine butter, sugar, and lemon and orange zest. Beat until sugar is dissolved and mixture is pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg, egg yolk and vanilla.
IN a separate bowl, mix together ground nuts, the rest of the flour, cloves, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture in three parts, mixing each time until it forms a slightly sticky dough.
DIVIDE dough into 2 pieces, one slightly bigger. Form larger piece into a ball, wrap and flatten to a 1-inch thickness. Form smaller piece into a rough rectangle, wrap and flatten to a 1-inch thickness about 4 by 5 inches. Chill 3 to 4 hours, or overnight.
HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 11-inch fluted French tart pan. Remove dough from refrigerator and let stand for 10 minutes. On floured parchment paper, roll the larger piece of dough into a 12-inch circle, dusting the top with flour as necessary. If dough is difficult to handle, chill again. Pat evenly into pan until sides and bottom are completely lined with dough about 1/8-inch thick. Refrigerate or freeze tart shell until firm.
ROLL out smaller piece of dough on floured parchment paper to rectangle about 10 by 12 inches and 1/8-inch thick. Cut into strips about 3/4 inch by 12 inches. Transfer parchment to a tray and refrigerate or freeze until firm.
SPREAD cranberry jam evenly into shell. Lay strips across top in a lattice pattern. Form remaining dough scraps into a rope 1/2 inch in diameter and use it to encircle outer edge of tart. Score diagonally with the handle of a spoon or flute with fingers to make a border.
BAKE for 30 to 35 minutes, until jam is bubbling and dough is lightly browned. Let cool and dust with powdered sugar if desired. Serve in small wedges.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.