Yesterday, I stopped in to see my mother-in-law, to check on how she was doing on the fourth day of the power outage after last weekend’s storm. I also wanted a recipe for this column. Anna Fernald is a “people person” and her home, in the center of the island, is a magnet for visitors. Chances were good that someone else would be there with an opinion on this subject. I specifically wanted to ask her about a holiday dessert she has made every year for either Christmas or Thanksgiving, and sometimes both: Cranberry Duff.

Anna produced a recipe card for Steamed Cranberry Pudding in the handwriting of Bruce’s grandmother, Hazel Fernald. Like many recipes from that time it lists the ingredients but not more specific instructions. When I asked Anna how she steamed the pudding, she brought out an old container, with a tight fitting lid, similar in style to an angel food cake pan, but smaller. Rattling around inside were two empty tuna cans which she has used many times to support the cooking container above the water in the larger pot. Anna says it is important to truly steam the pudding, not to immerse the pudding container in the water at all. She has also made the duff in a double boiler. Whatever mold you use to cook it, be sure to grease the container well so the pudding will slide out easily when it is done.

As we talked about the duff, I asked, “Would you mind if I mention that some of your daughters-in-law don’t care for it?” Anna laughed and said in a very sweet voice, “Oh, really?” Then she said she wouldn’t mind at all.

It’s an acquired taste a few of us never acquired, inspiring holiday meal planning comments like, “Ma is making the duff, could you bring something else to have for dessert?”

At this point her son Paul came in and I asked, “What comes to your mind when I say the words Cranberry Duff?” His immediate response, “I remember that you and Brenda and Vicky don’t like it.” (I was expecting some cute little memory from his childhood.)

Paul’s favorite part about the duff is the sauce that is served with it. I have asked several of my in-laws about this, but I seem to be the only one who remembers their father, Warren, referring to the sauce as “thin sugar gruel.” Upon hearing that label, I believe I was guilty of a little “condemnation before investigation,” and waited a few years before I actually tried it. 

Anna noted that Hazel had received the recipe from her mother-in-law, Sadie, and Anna had been given the recipe by her mother-in-law, Hazel. “And now I am giving it to you!” she said. I followed up by asking if she would make it for Christmas dinner this year, especially since our son Robin and our daughter-in-law Stephanie will be on the island. Then I can pass the recipe on to her, and keep a family tradition going. I do appreciate Cranberry Duff for its history, if not for its taste. But, you know, it’s actually not so bad with a little whipped cream.  

Steamed Cranberry Pudding

1 tsp. soda in a cup sour milk

1/2 cup molasses

1 tsp. cinnamon

scant tsp. salt

1 cup flour   (maybe more)

1 cup cranberries 

Steam 2 hours  (I do mine 2 1/2)


1/2 cup sugar

1 cup hot water

1 1/2 Tbsp. flour

1/2 tsp salt

add vanilla and butter

The notes in parentheses are Hazel Fernald’s. I forgot to ask but I believe the sauce is cooked on the stove and served warm.  I found this definition in the book, The Food Lover’s Companion: Duff – a steamed (or boiled) pudding made with flour, eggs, dried fruit and spices, and once wildly popular in England and Scotland. The name is a Scottish dialectical version of the word dough, which was apparently pronounced as rough.”

Barbara Fernald lives, writes, cooks and makes jewelry on Little Cranberry Island (islesford).