Thanksgiving 2008 was a memorable holiday. Johnny and I were recently engaged, and not only was it the first time our families were spending a holiday together, but it was my first time hosting—and preparing—the meal. I was mostly excited at the prospect, though, having never cooked a turkey before, I did have more than one nightmare about my bird shrinking down to a dry, inedible mess.
Deciding on a stuffing recipe also occupied quite a bit of space in my brain. Stuffing is by far my favorite Thanksgiving side (although corn pudding comes in a close second) and meals can be ruined over a subpar stab. After much planning and tinkering, I finally felt confident about my recipe. When I debuted it at our holiday dinner, to my delight, everyone raved about how good it was. Everyone that is, except my future husband. “You should have just bought Stove Top,” he told me later that night. “You can’t mess with perfection.” Really? Stove Top is instant! And the seasoning comes in a packet! Isn’t the best stuffing, as is the case with so many things, made from scratch?
I filed his assessment away in the back of my mind and when Thanksgiving rolled around the following year, I again made my own sausage stuffing. The next night, while I was heating up leftovers, Johnny snuck out to the store. He came home with a canister of Stove Top. This was a losing battle.
As Thanksgiving 2010 approaches, I’ve begun thinking about my menu once more.
“I’m going to ask Liz for her stuffing recipe,” I told Johnny a couple of weeks ago. Liz is my cousin’s wife and she makes a terrific stuffing brimming with apples and sausage.
“But you’re going to make Stove Top too, right?” came his reply. I didn’t respond.
A couple of nights ago I was flipping through the November issue of Food and Wine, looking for inspiration, when I came across a recipe that was based on the flavor of Stove Top. Perhaps this would satisfy my need for fresh, unprocessed ingredients and his for the taste of his beloved pre-packaged bird dressing.
“I found a recipe that’s based on Stove Top!” I happily proclaimed.
“But you’re still going to make actual Stove Top, right?” came the response.
I was beginning to be worn down. So I compromised: I would demo the Food and Wine recipe and Johnny would taste test it. If he didn’t deem it good enough, I would make him a bowl of Stove Top to eat with his turkey on Thanksgiving.
After a trip to Whole Foods, I set to work this afternoon. Overall I was pleased with the way the recipe was written. I cut it in a half, but I found the finished product a bit too dry. So when I went to reheat the stuffing for dinner, I added another two cups of chicken stock to moisten it, which worked really well. I also used bulk turkey sausage that was seasoned with garlic and herbs from Whole Foods. It added a delicious, healthier, flavor.
I thought the taste was very reminiscent of Stove Top, but I wasn’t the one who needed convincing. When Johnny got home, I grilled up some ginger teriyaki chicken, made a salad, and reheated the stuffing. It was time for the taste test. He took a bite. Then another. Then one more…
“It’s pretty good,” he finally pronounced. “Definitely the best you’ve made. If you want to make this stuffing for Thanksgiving, I’m fine with that.”
I smiled, resplendent in the sweet swell of victory.
“But Stove Top’s still better.”
Sausage and Bread Stuffing
1 stick unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
2 pounds good-quality white sandwich bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (20 cups)
4 inner celery ribs, finely diced (1 1/2 cups)
2 large carrots, finely diced (1 cup)
1 sweet onion, finely diced (2 1/2 cups)
1 pound loose pork or turkey breakfast sausage
2 tablespoons chopped sage
2 tablespoons chopped thyme
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 350° and butter a large baking dish. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast for 25 minutes, stirring, until lightly browned and crisp.
Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet, melt the 1 stick of butter. Pour half of the butter into a small bowl and reserve. Add the celery, carrots and onion to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and just beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Scrape the vegetables into a large bowl. Add the sausage to the skillet in lumps and cook over moderately high heat, breaking it up with a spoon, until lightly browned and cooked through, about 6 minutes. Return the vegetables to the skillet, add the sage and thyme and cook for 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the stock and cook, scraping up any bits stuck to the pan, until nearly evaporated, about 5 minutes.
Scrape the sausage mixture into the large bowl and add the toasted bread cubes. Add the remaining 2 cups of stock and stir until the bread is evenly moistened. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread the stuffing in the baking dish and brush with the reserved melted butter.
Bake the stuffing in the center of the oven for about 1 hour, until it is heated through and the top is browned and crisp. Let the stuffing stand for 10 minutes before serving.
The stuffing can be made ahead of time and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before baking.