Monday, December 17, 2018

Baltic Christmas Day 17 - Cranberry Sparks (or dzērveņu dzirksteles)!

Today, on Day 17, we welcome Kristīna back to the series! Last year she joined 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas with an article about the NY Latvian Concert Choir's annual Christmas concert, and we were so captivated that I convinced her she was needed for the current edition! Kristīna tells the story of a Latvian recipe unveiled; perhaps we should have titled it “A Baltic Christmas and the Mystery of the Sugared Cranberries”?

During one of those nostalgic moments when our parents are reminiscing about their childhood, my mother mentioned that one of her childhood Christmas memories included sugared cranberry candies. Some years later these candies turned up at the annual Latvian Christmas Bazaar. The woman selling them would not share her recipe… Of course- nothing like owning 100% of the market!

Another Christmas season, my husband Mārtiņš decided to dedicate his efforts to unravelling the mystery of sugared cranberry candies. We did have an inside scoop from someone who had done an ingredient analysis at a food lab; results - cranberries, sugar, and gum Arabic. The first two ingredients were available at the local supermarket. Gum Arabic, not so much. Fortunately a local pharmacy was willing and able to order the needed goods from a chemical supplier, and we were endowed with something like a 30 year supply for the necessary 4 teaspoons per batch. Several evenings of a chemist’s worthy experimenting with various cooking times & quantities and diligent note-taking still resulted in mushy, sweet cranberry goop. Enter the classic “Joy of Cooking”, 1975 edition, which revealed gum Arabic in the index. There in the Candies and Confections chapter the recipe for glazed mint leaves also requires gum Arabic or acacia. Voila! It called for making a simple sugar syrup with the gum Arabic, into which the mint leaves are then dipped. The gum Arabic helped the syrup to harden into a crisp sugar shell. Maybe the cranberries didn’t need to be cooked??

The following recipe is the happy result. Martiņš named his recipe Dzērveņu dzirksteles or Cranberry sparks because the taste sensation of biting into the sweet sugar coating to instantly blend with the tart juice of the cranberry is like a beautifully balanced spark of flavor.

The cranberries last longer than you would think, but it does depend on how ripe they are and where you keep them. Cool is better than warm. A closed container is not good- the moisture in the cranberries seeps out and begins dissolving the coating. An open, shallow dish on a table or shelf that is easily accessible for quick tastes works well!

Dzērveņu dzirksteles (cranberry sparks)


1 cup sugar
½ cup water
4 teaspoons gum Arabic (you can find it on the internet)
12-16 oz. fresh cranberries, picked over
1 lb. powdered sugar


Melt 1 c. sugar in ½ c. water on low heat until the liquid is clear.

Remove from the heat. Place the gum Arabic in a small bowl or glass and gradually add a teaspoon at a time of the sugar water, thoroughly mixing between each addition. Using a small whisk, if you have one, works very well. Continue adding the sugar water until you have a rather runny, smooth mixture. 

Mix into the rest of the sugar water until smooth and well blended. It will now be a creamy color.

Put the mixture in the refrigerator until chilled. Stir occasionally as the mixture cools. Give it all a good mix with a whisk to smooth any clumps that form during the cooling process.

Add cranberries to sugar syrup and mix until well covered.

Using a shallow, flat bottomed bowl or pie plate, pour in enough powdered sugar to generously cover the bottom of the bowl.

Pick up 10-20 cranberries (letting excess syrup to drip off) and place cranberries in the powdered sugar.

Begin rolling cranberries in sugar by swirling the bowl in a circular motion similar to panning for gold (something I realize probably no one will have done…).

Continue rolling until all cranberries are thoroughly coated.

If any stick together, gently separate them and nudge them to roll. Once the batch is well coated in powdered sugar and it seems the sugar is no longer being absorbed by the syrup, gently remove them to a clean, dry cookie sheet to harden. Repeat with remaining cranberries, adding, refreshing, or even replacing the powdered sugar as it gets too clumpy. Yes, a fair amount of powdered sugar will get discarded. When all cranberries are covered, leave them in a single, loose layer on the cookie sheet overnight to let the sugar shell completely harden. Sprinkle with additional powdered sugar in case more is absorbed.

Priecīgus Ziemsvētkus!

Paldies Kristīna, for this age-old tradition, divulged! Also a shout-out to Mārtiņš for his diligent work in unraveling the mystery of the sugared cranberries – 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas readers thank you! I sure would like access to this food lab ingredient analysis… Think of all the times a home chef said “oh, it’s so easy, here are the ingredients” and upon a pinterest-fail-worthy attempt you decide a key ingredient has definitely been left out!! I’m ordering up some gum Arabic and these are definitely going on my holiday checklist next year; I think these would make a lovely hostess gift, or contribution to a holiday party.

A little about the author:
Kristīna looks forward to the annual ritual of preparing traditional foods for the holidays and family celebrations. She can produce grandma-worthy
pīrāgi and kliņģeris when the need arises. She still finds that singing along with CDs in the car or with friends around the campfire are the best ways to de-stress. You can direct fan mail to 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas ;)

With one week left until Christmas we are busy wrapping up the holiday preparations, so the series will spend the next days covering an aspect of a Baltic Christmas that is a common feature of the Baltic celebration – the libation. Tomorrow we’ll start with the Lithuanian favorite, krupnikas!

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