Thanksgiving 2013: Ghost chili and licorice cranberry sauce

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Of all the Thanksgiving side dishes out there, cranberry sauce may very well be one of the most traditional, and as such may also well be among those most often found on Thanksgiving tables throughout America. Given this fact, and the fact that I absolutely love cranberries, I naturally wanted to include a homemade cranberry sauce in my efforts to bring Thanksgiving to Denmark. And I wanted my cranberry sauce to have a twist!

But first, did you know that cranberries are really, really good for you?

Cranberries are actually one of the world’s true super foods. In their raw state, they’re bursting with Vitamin C, dietary fibers and essential dietary minerals, they’re full of anti-oxidants and are potentially beneficial to both the cardiovascular system and the immune system – they may even contain compounds that can help fight or cure cancer!

Ghost chili licorice cranberry sauceNot your every day batch of cranberry sauce!

So, what’s the catch with them cranberries, you ask? Oh, nothing major, it’s just that they’re too damn tart and bitter to be considered edible in their raw state. Which, I suppose, is why we have cranberry sauce: an ingenious application in which copious amounts of sugar are added to the cranberries to make them not only edible, but also to transform them into one of the world’s truly classic side dishes!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not by any means suggesting that cranberry sauce is healthy or good for you, I’m just saying that if you’re really going to take something and dump a load of sugar on it, why not make that something a super food?

And while you’re busy counteracting the benefits of super foods, why not kick it up a notch? I mean, we’ve all had basic cranberry sauce in one form or another, probably more times than we could possibly count. And with all due respect to the traditionalists out there, it gets a little, uh, uninspiring in the long run. For my Thanksgiving dinner 2013, I wanted something a little different, something new.

Now, as some will know, I’ve rather busied myself lately finding new culinary uses for two things in particular: ghost chilies and licorice… Which is probably why it didn’t take me long to make the jump: Ghost chili and licorice cranberry sauce, I thought, why the hell not? And off to work in my crash test kitchen, I went!

Cranberry sauce, in its basic form is a pretty simple concoction: Cranberries, sugar, orange/lemon zest and water are simmered gently till the cranberries pop and turn to mush – it doesn’t get much less complicated than this, yet the result is simple, balanced, fruity sweet and sour perfection. But that shouldn’t keep us from adding a bit of extra flavor! And a lot of people do, resorting to such exotic additions as pineapple juice, ginger, cinnamon and what have you. As for me, my weapons of choice in the battle to reinvent cranberry sauce were licorice, star anise, mango and incendiary hot peppers!


Someone please tell me why?

At this point, you may be wondering what the hell would inspire an otherwise reasonably sane young man to add not only ghost chili, but also licorice to an otherwise traditional cranberry sauce. The honest to God answer to the question is: I don’t know! Except that I thought it would work and that it might add an unexpected warmth and exotic depth to the final product. This, incidentally, is how many of my culinary inventions come about; on a bit of a whim!

As far as the inclusion of chili goes, the intention, of course, was not to create a scorching hot cranberry sauce, but rather a rounder, warming tangy-sweet side dish experience. I’ve discovered that ghost chili, when used in (strict) moderation provides a nice depth, character and a gentle, comforting warmth that you’d only really notice if it wasn’t there. Of course, with ghost chilies it’s a very thin line between pleasant warmth and guests complaining about attempts being made against their lives. I’d suggest anyone attempting the recipe be extremely careful and only add a little at the time, tasting often.

In my case, I decided to use a bit of my homemade mango ghost chili hot sauce as the chili component. Simply because it, the scorching bite of the chilies aside, has a nice, subtle, slightly sweet, exotic cooked mango flavor that I figured would play well with the tangy sweetness of the cranberry sauce.

Licorice may seem like an even weirder ingredient, but that may well be rooted in our perception of licorice as slightly to cloyingly sweet, weirdly textured gummy sweets. Real licorice, such as the licorice syrups or raw licorice powders produced by Johan Bülow, are bursting with character and flavor, and they are so much more than a sweet treat aimed at kids. Rather, as mentioned earlier, they are seeing a revival as a culinary ingredient used in dishes both savory and sweet. And with good reason!

I’ve been conducting some experiments with licorice myself, some successful, some not quite so successful. I’m still getting my bearings with this new ingredient, but the conclusion of my work so far seems to be that quality licorice can add an interesting depth, and familiar yet surprising, earthy, anise-y, notes to many exotic dishes. The notes are decidedly licorice-like, but don’t clash with savory ingredients as you might’ve feared.

Given the conclusions above, my intuition told me that ghost chili cranberry and licorice together would work. After all, what could be more exotic than cranberry sauce with a shot of mango and Ghost Chili? I don’t know, I said to myself, and went out in the name of science on a culinary adventure to reinvent the most classic of Thanksgiving side dishes.

Ghost chili licorice cranberry sauceThe finished sauce. The licorice adds a wonderful deep red color

The highly recommended slightly devilish concoction I came up with was an instant Thanskgiving classic at Johan’s:

Thanksgiving 2013: Ghost chili and licorice cranberry sauce

An interesting new spin on a Thanksgiving classic: cranberry sauce - with ghost chili and licorice!
Course Side Dish
Cuisine American
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Servings 6 -8
Author Johan Johansen


  • 250 grams of fresh cranberries
  • 150 grams of sugar
  • A splash of water
  • One strip each of lemon zest and orange zest optional
  • One star anise
  • One teaspoon of <a href="">Mango Ghost Chili Hot Sauce</a>
  • 1-2 teaspoons of raw licorice powder preferably by Johan Bülow
  • 1-2 teaspoons of sweet licorice syrup preferably by Johan Bülow
  • A couple of dashes of good quality apple cider vinegar
  • A dash of salt


  1. Add cranberries, sugar, water, orange/lemon zest, star anise and hot sauce to a pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
  2. Cook for about 10-15 minutes until cranberries have burst and become a tender mush.
  3. Remove star anise and lemon/orange zest.
  4. Kill the heat and blend to a smooth sauce using a stick blender.
  5. Stir in salt, licorice powder, licorice syrup and a dash of apple cider vinegar.
  6. Taste and add more chili, licorice or vinegar according to your own preferences, this is the fun part!

Recipe Notes

What’s super fun about this recipe is the tasting and adjusting to personal preferences bit. The measurements of chili, sugar and licorice is a reasonable approximation of what worked for me. You may want to start with a little less and add more as you go along. Remember, you can always add more spice in the end, but it’s kind of hard to take it back. I can only say what worked for me, you’ll have to find your own balance, it’s part of what makes cooking so amazing.


So… What makes this so damn special?

You mean apart from the fact that it contains both licorice and one of the world’s hottest chilies? For me, it was probably the fact that it’s a pretty straight-forward and familiar concept while being something entirely new, strange and exciting at the same time.

Upon tasting my finished sauce, it kicked off with the familiar sweet twang of a regular cranberry sauce with a hint of sour apple followed by a subtle anise/licorice aftertaste. After a few seconds, at the back of the mouth and in the throat, the licorice notes changed character to a gentle, soothing warmth courtesy of the chilies. It was a both somewhat familiar and somewhat peculiar experience that was enjoyed by all who tasted it, and it’s one that I am excited to share with you. You may want a totally different profile in your cranberry sauce, and you can achieve just that by manipulating the amounts of the added ingredients as mentioned in the recipe above.

This strange twist on a familiar side dish can be enjoyed both warm or at room temperature and is a perfect side dish for turkey or any kind of roast fowl, possibly even the gamey kind. It would go well, too, I imagine with most other white  meats as long as the other elements of the dish are prominent and flavorful. So, while Thanksgiving may be long gone, there’s no reason for waiting a year before pulling this sauce out. I know I probably won’t!

Hot or cold? It doesn’t really matter! You can serve this whichever temperature you want. However, do bear in mind that the flavor of a dish changes considerably with temperature. That is, if you plan to serve it at room temperature, make sure you also taste it at room temperature before serving, and be prepared to further adjust your seasoning and ingredients. You’d be surprised at how much the taste can change. I served mine slightly warm.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave a Reply!