Those of us who wish to bake homemade treats to give away as holiday gifts have many options—and none of them are perfect. Gingerbread cookies, a perennial favorite, tend to crumble or stick together when you wrap them in decorative packages, plus they go stale pretty quickly. Fruitcake, though it can be thoroughly delicious if you do it right, still has a bad enough reputation that recipients may feel resentment rather than gratitude. Stollen, that eminently rich and sweet German yeast bread, requires an investment of time that not everyone is willing or able to make.
As a compromise, may I suggest a quick, simple, festive, and lovable cranberry bread? Like cookies, it’s sugary and habit-forming—but it’s easy to wrap and travels well. Like fruitcake and stollen, it’s self-consciously seasonal and, well, fruity—but it’s not alienating. (Consider it a gateway fruitcake, something sweet and innocuous to sell people on before you try transitioning them to the harder stuff—like Taylor Swift vis-à-vis country music.) It takes almost no time at all to make and you can double or triple the recipe easily (assuming you have a large enough bowl). Plus, it keeps in the fridge for weeks and tastes incredible with cream cheese. (For added value, put a brick of Philadelphia on top of each loaf before tying a ribbon around it.)
The secret to this quick bread’s moist, confection-like interior is lots and lots of brown sugar. (Surprisingly, this recipe is low in fat, but this is one of those cases where the label “low-fat” has absolutely no bearing on overall healthfulness.) Another important component is fresh orange juice, which contributes acid to react with baking soda and lighten the bread, and also complements the bracing tartness of the cranberries. Don’t use store-bought orange juice; you’ll have to buy fresh oranges for their zest, anyway, and they’ll yield approximately the amount of juice you need to moisten the batter.
Like I said, you can scale up this recipe easily if you have a long list of good girls and boys (or men and women) to give presents to. My dad, whose recipe I’ve adapted here, has a metal mixing bowl the size of a small umbrella that comes out of storage once a year for exactly this purpose. You can also bake the batter in mini loaf pans, which will cook through more quickly than full-sized loaves (start checking them for doneness after half an hour or so), but there’s no good reason not to give away full-sized loaves. I promise they’ll get eaten.
Yield: Two 9-inch loaves
Time: 1¾ to 2 hours, mostly unattended
Butter or oil for greasing the pans
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
½ cup canola or grapeseed oil
Grated zest of 2 medium oranges
1 teaspoon almond extract
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 cup sliced almonds
1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch loaf pans. Put the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cloves in a large bowl and stir to combine. Beat the eggs in a separate medium bowl, then whisk in the orange juice, oil, orange zest, almond extract, and ¼ cup water. Add the orange juice mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until combined. (The batter will be very thick.) Gently fold in the cranberries and almonds.
2. Divide the batter between the loaf pans. Bake until the loaves are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of each loaf comes out clean, about 1¼ hours. Cool thoroughly, and serve. (Store leftover cranberry-orange bread wrapped in foil or plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.)