Last winter I went through a phase where playing with melted sugar seemed like a really excellent idea, and through a simultaneous obsession with cranberries. Of course this happened eventually:
Sugared cranberries. Most recipes I've seen call for maceration overnight, but I prefer my method of gentle simmering -- it jellifies the inside of the cranberries without sweetening them very much, and once you apply the sugar crystal coating, each berry becomes an individual bite of cranberry sauce: a burst of tart, thick jelly contained by the crisp crunch of sugar shell. And they look gorgeous and festive as a plate garnish or table dressing with a warm & wintery holiday meal. Many thanks to Maria @ MommyMelee for the photo evidence.
1/3 cup granulated white sugar (for coating)
1/4 cup granulated white sugar (for syrup)
2 tbsp water
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 cup additional sugar (for syrup)
Set out a layer of parchment paper (or a plastic/silicone cutting board) on a flat work surface. Pour the 1/3 cup of sugar for coating into a medium (like, can-of-soup-sized) bowl, and set it by the paper/board.
Rinse the cranberries, but don't worry about drying them. In a 2-quart saucepan (i.e., smallish, but large enough to hold all of the cranberries in a single layer), stir together the water and 1/4 cup of sugar, and place over very low heat. Like, heat setting 1 or 2 out of 10. You'll want it to just simmer, but never reach a full boil. Stir the sugar occasionally until it's dissolved and just beginning to bubble.
Add the cranberries to the melted sugar, and stir gently to coat. Some (or even most) of the cranberries will split a seam in their skin to let steam out, but so long as they're not starting to gush jelly out into the pan, they're not too hot. If any start bursting completely open, take the pan off the heat for a moment and turn the temperature down.
Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring gently and frequently to keep the cranberries coated with the syrup. When the liquid in the pan begins turning pink, add the extra quarter cup of sugar. Continue stirring gently for another 3 minutes or so. You're looking for all of the sugar to be dissolved and the cranberries to look like they can't take much more heat without bursting.
Turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the warm burner to prevent the syrup from solidifying too much while you're working. With a slotted spoon, fish a scoop of cranberries (<10 or so) out of the pan and wiggle it to drain off some of the syrup. Add the cranberries to the bowl of sugar, and shimmy the sugar around in the bowl to coat them. If any of the cranberries are sticking together, poke them apart with a finger or clean spoon (carefully -- hot sugar can be very hot). Once they're coated with sugar crystals, gently pick the cranberries out (they should be cool enough to touch if you're quick) and place them on the parchment paper/board to cool, dry, and harden.
Coat the remainder of the cranberries in sugar, a scoop at a time. If towards the end of the batch you find the sugar crystals clumping instead of coating the cranberries evenly, just pick out the clumps of syrup and add a couple tablespoons of fresh sugar to the bowl. The sugared cranberries can be eaten/used as garnish as soon as they're cool enough -- maybe after they've been out of the pot for 10 minutes -- but if you want them to last for a day or two, allow them to dry for at least an hour on the sheet.
You can proceed this way through an entire bag of cranberries, using fresh sugar each time -- a 16 oz bag contains about 3 cups, or 3 batches. You want to keep the cranberries in a single layer in the pot, though, so that they cook evenly and thoroughly -- don't be tempted to cook a double or triple batch all at once.
It's best to store the sugared cranberries in an open container in a cool, dry place that's out of the sunlight, which may melt them. Do not store them in the fridge -- the moisture will make them melt for sure. You can seal them in a plastic baggie or container if you wish -- just put a layer of parchment between the cranberries and the plastic. Even so, the sugar coating may begin to melt after a few hours. Should the coating melt, you can reapply it without doing any particular damage to the cranberries -- they won't look as pretty the second time around, is all. They should keep for 2 or 3 days (if you can avoid eating them all, piece by piece, absentmindedly).
If you're the sort of person who hates wasting anything, you could add a few tablespoons of water to the remaining (pretty-in-pink) syrup in the pot, heat it and stir to dissolve, and pour it into a sterilized jar/bottle for use in tea/coffee/cocktails during the holiday season. It shouldn't have much if any flavor from the cranberries, and should last at least a month if you store it in the fridge until it's needed.