Now comes that murky time just before Thanksgiving, when battles are silently waged. If you’re cooking for a spouse or family of choice, as opposed to your birth family, the stuffing wars are undoubtedly raging.
I grew up in a bread stuffing family. My mother never used a recipe, so making the stuffing involved lots of tasting along the way. Raw eggs weren’t a concern in those days, and we tasted merrily for salt, sage, pepper, and whatever exotic ingredient she had decided to add that year. My mother was a bit of a freewheeling cook, not too far out, but she did like to add one new ingredient to the stuffing each year, just for fun.
There was always a countertop covered with drying bread for the two days before stuffing making began. Sliced white bread, no special kind. We’d break up the dry bread into a huge bowl, add in eggs and chicken broth (from a can), plus sautéed onions and celery. Sage was in there for sure, and lots of melted butter, and then there might be pecans one year, or water chestnuts, or regular chestnuts, or even pine nuts. We stuffed some in the turkey and baked the rest in a pan. There was never meat of any sort in it, and we liked the the stuffing soft, moist, almost custardy. I would eat it cold for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving and count my blessings.
Later in life I married Shel, who had a completely different notion of stuffing. His Mom’s stuffing was based on cornbread, with stuffing cubes added. The recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon of poultry spice. There was sautéed celery and onion, butter and broth, all in all it sounds not too different from the stuffing I had grown up with. But it baked in a pan into a sort of firm cake-y texture, and I found it bland and dry. Shel and Eric, however, adored it, couldn’t have Thanksgiving without it, and yes, Eric ate it for breakfast the morning after, just as I had as a kid.
So our first year together I made both kinds, each part of our blended family stubbornly clinging to tradition, while Jordan, a lifelong vegetarian, continued to scorn all stuffing equally. As I recall there were a couple of years where I made only Shel’s Mom’s stuffing, thinking it a good excuse to eat more pie and less stuffing. I know that one year I made only my Mom’s stuffing, but the reproachful eyes of Shel and Eric over that dinner haunt me still.
And then, I started trying to find a compromise. There were several years where I anxiously scanned recipes, trying a new one each time if it looked at all like it might work in the interest of family harmony. By then both Shel and Eric had broadened their food horizons and were willing to give it a try. But I never settled down and stuck to one recipe, until finally, we were in France for three Thanksgivings in a row, and I had to find a real solution, using ingredients that were available there. Also, I wanted to show our French friends, who had never tasted anything like an American stuffing, what it was all about. I needed the mother of all stuffings, something that could pass on any table in the land. And I think this is it. I think that Shel and I each still miss our own family stuffing, and in fact I no longer eat stuffing at all, thanks to my diabetes-induced low carb lifestyle. But this is a stuffing we can agree on, and serve proudly, and I think everyone will find something familiar in it to love. It’s not bad for breakfast, either.
Family Harmony Stuffing*
1 lb sliced white bread, your favorite, not too sweet
4 cups coarsely crumbled cornbread ( I use the buttermilk cornbread in the recipe link below, but you can use your favorite, again, not too sweet)
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
2 tsp poultry seasoning
1-2 tsp salt, to taste
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 sticks butter
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
2 cups turkey stock or chicken broth, preferably home made
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup Madeira (optional)
The day before you plan to make the stuffing, spread the sliced bread out on a counter or table and let dry. If you don’t have the space, you can dry it in a very low oven, but I think the texture is better when air dried, plus it makes the house look like Thanksgiving. Crumble the cornbread and let it dry as well, either on the counter on a baking sheet, or in the oven.
When dry, place the cornbread crumbs in a large bowl. Rip the dried bread into small pieces and add them to the bowl, along with the parsley, sage, poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper.
Put all of the butter in a large skillet and sauté the onions, celery, and garlic gently over medium low heat for about 10 minutes, until it’s tender and translucent but not browned. Let cool to room temperature.
Add the vegetables to the bread and mix well. Beat the eggs with the heavy cream and add the mixture to the bowl along with the turkey stock or chicken broth, and Madeira if you’re using that. Unless you’re worried about your eggs, taste the mixture and rectify the salt and pepper.
Butter a 9×13″ dish, a pretty one that can go on the table if possible, and add the stuffing, patting it gently into the dish Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake at 325° for 30 minutes. Uncover and baste the top with a good squirt of turkey drippings from the bottom of the roaster. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, until the top is browned and firm.