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Cranberry Pretzel Salad

You might see strawberry pretzel salad referred to as a Southern invention, but we Western Pennsylvanians have also been enjoying this dessert-that’s-not-really-a-salad for decades.

In fact, its popularity has been traced all over the United States since the 1960s and 1970s, from its potential origins in Illinois to a prizewinning turn in Florida.*

If you’ve ever attended a neighborhood potluck or read a vintage community cookbook, you’re probably vaguely familiar with this sweet-creamy-salty concoction.

cranberry pretzel salad
Photo: Casey Barber

Pretzel crust on the bottom, a whipped cream/cheesecake-style layer in the middle (sometimes a blend of both), and strawberry halves suspended in jello on top—it sounds horrifying to those who have never tried it, but believe me, the combination works.

Growing up outside Pittsburgh, strawberry pretzel salad was a frequent staple on buffet tables. But now I live further east in New Jersey, where I continue to spread the gospel of the strange foods from my youth to unsuspecting palates.

Every now and again, I like to tweak those foods and make them a little, shall we say, of their time. And you know one thing we have in New Jersey that most states don’t? Cranberries!

cranberry pretzel salad
Photo: Casey Barber

Cranberry pretzel salad swaps out the ubiquitous strawberry for the seasonal, tart berry we love so much around here.

Whereas strawberries fall on the side of summer and nostalgia, cranberries have a more mysterious, grown-up feeling to them.

This truly wouldn’t be the “salad” it is without Jello, but I did update a few elements for the modern palate.

cranberry pretzel salad
Photo: Casey Barber

Instead of packaged whipped topping straight from the freezer section, I like to use homemade whipped cream to manage the levels of sweetness in the creamy layer.

Adding a bit of unflavored gelatin to this layer also gives it a bit more structure. If you prefer to blend the cream cheese and whipped cream without adding the gelatin, the binders in the cream cheese will be enough to keep it in place.

But it might squoosh a little more when you cut the chilled dessert into squares, so I like the extra insurance the gelatin provides.

cranberry pretzel salad
Photo: Casey Barber

I also love the swap-out of brown sugar for the usual granulated sugar in the pretzel crust. The molasses in brown sugar adds a hint of warmth to the sweet-and-salty crust without straying too far from tradition.

Because cranberry pretzel salad is a departure from the norm, or what some of us consider the norm, anyway.

cranberry pretzel salad

If this type of dessert still sounds too goofy and midcentury for you, I strongly urge you to put your fears aside and grab a fork.

Especially if you’re a fan of cheesecake bars or lemon bars, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the flavors found in this cranberry pretzel salad.

* One more historical note:

Some sources claim that strawberry pretzel salad first appeared in the 1962-63 “Joys of Jell-O ” cookbook. I happen to own the edition and can tell you that while a “layered cheesecake” recipe appears on page 8, it uses a standard graham cracker crust and not a pretzel crust.

In the 1973-74 editions (retitled “The New Joys of Jell-O”), this recipe has been removed, though a similar “fresh strawberry pie” recipe appears, featuring a crumb or standard pie crust. In neither of these editions are pretzels mentioned anywhere.

cranberry pretzel salad

Cranberry Pretzel Salad

Yield: 9 squares
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Additional Time: 6 hours
Total Time: 6 hours 55 minutes

Cranberry pretzel salad puts a seasonal and slightly grown-up spin on the nostalgic strawberry pretzel salad dessert known across the US.

Ingredients

Pretzel Crust

  • 5 ounces (140 grams) mini salted pretzels or pretzel sticks
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

Cream Cheese Layer

  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
  • 1 cup (1/2 pint) heavy cream or whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar, divided
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

Cranberry Layer

  • 1 (6-ounce) bag fresh cranberries
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 (3-ounce) package cranberry or black cherry Jello

Instructions

Make the pretzel crust:

  1. Line an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish with parchment paper, making sure there is enough overhang to cover the sides by an inch or two.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  3. Crush the pretzels in a blender or food processor until they are mostly crumbs—I like to have a few larger pretzel pieces in there so people can really get a bit of pretzel texture in every bite.
  4. Pour the crumbs into a large bowl. Add the butter and sugar, and stir until combined.
  5. Press the crust mixture into the bottom of the prepared baking dish.
  6. Bake for about 12 minutes, until golden brown and matte. Let the crust cool while you make the cream cheese layer.

Make the cream cheese layer:

  1. Pour the hot water into a small heatproof bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let dissolve.
  2. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream on medium-high speed for 1-2 minutes until soft peaks form.
  3. Add 1 tablespoon of the confectioner's sugar and whip until firm peaks form, about 1-2 minutes more.
  4. Transfer the whipped cream to a separate bowl.
  5. Gently heat the dissolved gelatin, either in the microwave in 10-second bursts or over a bowl of simmering water or diffuser plate on the stove. Stir frequently until the liquid is clear.
  6. Let the gelatin cool slightly while you continue working.
  7. Add the softened cream cheese to the stand mixer bowl and switch to the paddle attachment.
  8. Beat on medium speed until fluffy, then scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again.
  9. Add half the whipped cream to the cream cheese, beating on medium speed just until incorporated.
  10. Beat in the remaining whipped cream and drizzle the dissolved gelatin into the mixture while the mixer is running, continuing to beat until all ingredients are evenly incorporated.
  11. Spread the whipped cream cheese layer evenly over the pretzel crust, making sure all the edges are covered.
  12. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours until fully chilled.

Make the cranberry Jello layer:

  1. Heat the cranberries, sugar, and water in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the liquid comes to a simmer.
  2. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries soften and start to burst.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the Jello packet until dissolved.
  4. Carefully pour the cranberry Jello over the cream cheese layer, spreading it evenly in the pan.
  5. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours until set—or let it rest overnight.

To serve:

  1. Carefully lift the dessert out of the pan and onto a cutting board using the parchment paper as a set of handles.
  2. With a long knife, slice into 9 squares. Wipe the knife between slices to ensure clean cuts.
  3. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days. The cranberry will eventually bleed down into the cream cheese and the pretzels will become soggy, so don't wait too long to enjoy!
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 9 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 189Total Fat: 14gSaturated Fat: 9gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 38mgSodium: 185mgCarbohydrates: 15gFiber: 1gSugar: 8gProtein: 2g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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