My worst Thanksgiving memory is the taste of my aunt’s stuffing. Like many people, I looked forward to Thanksgiving as a child, and not because of any affinity for the turkey that my mother habitually overcooked until its flesh was the consistency of compressed sawdust. No, my love of the annual gorge-a-thon was all about the stuffing, a dish my mother made extremely well—and in huge quantities, because she knew I’d consume a trencherman’s portion before the serving dish ever graced the table.
Having never tried any but my mother’s, I had no way of knowing there were hundreds of ways to stuff a turkey—until I was 9, the year my aunt Gretchen, a Doris Day look-alike, presented a perfectly bronzed bird from whose cavity spilled copious amounts of…what was that, rice? Was the stuffing hiding somewhere behind it? No. This was the stuffing, not the traditional crisp, golden chunks of white bread that my mother flavored with her homemade stock and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, but an amorphous heap of overcooked rice that, to my horror, also contained chestnuts and oysters. I subsequently fell into a great snit, one that prompted my mother to lean close and whisper, "Whatever’s making you look as though you’ve just been served a plate of poop, knock it off."
Since then, I’ve had to endure only one other charlatan variety, a cornbread-and-sausage affair that, in truth, was not so terrible. But it wasn’t stuffing. How do I know? Because it’s not what I grew up with, and I’m fairly sure that’s the main benchmark by which we judge all stuffing, innocently guided as we are by those personal taste memories that have bored down into our culinary substrate. Which explains why my cousins actually look forward all year to that chestnut-oyster monstrosity.
Cultural prerogatives and familial quirks aside, however, I want to believe there’s a communal middle-of-the-road in the ongoing battle for stuffing supremacy, one embodied by that neutral white paint of the stuffing pantheon known as Stove Top. It’s a classic most of us crave without knowing it, in part because it was likely inspired by hundreds of homemade recipes such as my mother’s. So why not make the real deal? It’s easy, involves no cracking of chestnuts or shucking of oysters, and uses a brand of white bread that’s so ingrained in our culture you can buy it at the gas station. More important, however, it has the power to appease the most scrutinizing of stuffing eaters, maybe even your die-hard oyster-and-chestnut-loving cousins.
For the author’s recipe, use the kind of white bread typified by the Wonder brand. If you shun giblets, omit the steps for preparing stock and simply use 4-5 cups of canned chicken broth. Makes 12-14 cups
1 package giblets
8 cups water
1 small yellow onion, quartered
2 ribs celery, halved
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
5 whole black peppercorns
3 loaves soft white bread (about 4 lbs)
1 cup salted butter
2 yellow onions, chopped (about 4 cups)
4 stalks celery, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 tsp poultry seasoning, or to taste
Salt and black pepper to taste
(1) 1-2 days before you plan to serve the stuffing, set bread slices out on baking sheets to dry, turning occasionally.
(2) On cooking day, cut each bread slice into 12 squares (about 20 cups).
(3) Combine all stock ingredients in a saucepan.
(4) Bring to a boil over high heat, lower heat and simmer 1 hour.
(5) Strain, reserving liquid and cooked giblets; discard vegetables and bay leaf.
(6) Finely chop neck, heart and liver. Set aside.
(7) In a tall stockpot, melt butter over medium heat.
(8) Add chopped onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.
(9) Add chopped celery and continue cooking and stirring until translucent but not browned, about 3 minutes.
(10) Turn heat to low and add 8 cups cubed bread to pot. Season with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper and stir well. Repeat with remaining bread.
(11) Stir in just enough stock (about 4 cups) to moisten, and mix in giblets.
Our favorite way to serve the stuffing? As dressing. Place it in a baking dish, dot with butter and crisp it under a broiler for 5 minutes to serve as is.