Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving Frenzy One: Hooray for Stuffing (and Pioneer Woman!)

Holy crap, it's been a lot longer than I thought it had been.

Anyway, this is the first of a series of posts on Stuff I Made for Thanksgiving, and the only one that will literally be about Stuff(ing, that is).

My mom has a rule that once you turn 30, you have to bring something to Thanksgiving. Last year was my first year "on," and I was assigned stuffing. Spouse doesn't do onions, nor does he do nuts, so I scoured the Web for something inoffensive. It involved shallots and white wine. I made cornbread for it from a Jiffy mix (mit lard!). It didn't kill anyone, and it even received compliments, but I don't know that it was anything to write home about.

This year Spouse informed me that he doesn't really dig stuffing, onion-free or otherwise. So I decided to make a fairly normal stuffing, but throwing in, er, stuff I would really enjoy. Pioneer Woman had been running a Thanksgiving series so I checked out what she had to say on the subject. (I'd consider PW an authority on food, period, but especially on traditional types of dishes that are meant to please a crowd.) I printed out her recipe and wondered how to reduce it, since she cooks for something like a baseball team.

Her recipe calls for crusty Italian white bread and for traditional unsweetened cornbread, 8 cups of each, in 1" cubes. I decided rather randomly to just halve it and go for 4 cups of each. I love cornbread but I don't have a skillet (yet--getting one for Christmas!) so I didn't feel like making it from scratch, and frankly the Jiffy mix wasn't that great last year. (In my 8" square pan, it went completely flat.)

For the crusty bread, I went for Cuban bread from Publix, which is a huge long, light-as-a-feather loaf, so full of air that if you can't eat it all in about 36 hours, it will become hard as a rock. (That's not usually a problem for me, put it that way.) You want your stuffing fodder somewhat dry so it will absorb whatever liquid you throw at it, so I thought Cuban bread would be perfect. (Someday I will write a paean to Publix, particularly its bakery department that always seems to be making chocolate chip cookies when I walk by, but that is a story for another day.)

I had a harder time finding cornbread. Publix stopped making it, the lady said, because it didn't sell well. I found some at a Kroger and was so stoked that I made the fatal error of not checking the ingredients before I bought. Problem: Sugar was listed before cornmeal. We sampled it and it was like yellow layer cake. So that was out.

I called the Somewhat Hippie-fied corporate grocery and all they had was jalapeno cheddar cornbread, which is probably tasty but not what I was after. I called the Fancier Gourmet one next, and the bakery person was knowledgeable enough to tell me that theirs was sweet and probably not right for stuffing. This was Wednesday at something like 3 pm, and I still hadn't made it out of the house. I decided to do What the Locals Do, which is go to the nearest meat-and-three and buy some of their cornbread. I asked the friendly young lady at the counter if she had heard of people doing this and she nodded and said, "All the time." Back in my car, I took a sample (for research purposes! How often do you actually get to do that?!) and it was perfect. Good and gritty.

And then I went to Big Lots, ostensibly to buy a cooling rack, and spent an hour looking at $4 Christmas CDs. I had 3 in hand but thought better of it.

Later that evening, I had more than enough Cuban bread to make 4 cups of cubes, plus a good-sized sandwich or two. Six pieces of restaurant cornbread, minus one corner, were exactly enough to make 4 cups. I spread the cubes out on cookie sheets. That night after I took our frozen pizza out of the oven and turned off the heat, I put the cookie sheets in to get the bread a little crunchy. (Paranoid of any complications, I also stuck a Post-It on the oven controls, lest I forget I had stowed things in there that probably would not benefit from a round of pre-heating.)

Thursday morning, I chopped one yellow onion, about half of a bunch of celery, a peeled and cored Rome apple that a produce section sign told me would benefit from being baked, and one cup of toasted pecans. (Joy says you can toast nuts in the microwave. Don't believe it. It's not the same.) I put three tablespoons of unsalted butter and a good dose of olive oil in a pan. I was at the bottom of my jar of minced garlic and elected to just clean it out [deviation from PW's recipe]. Then I added the celery and onion.

When the onions were starting to turn clear, I added a two-cup container of reduced-sodium chicken broth. Then I started shaking in dried herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, and oregano, I think) and fresh ground pepper. At this point it smelled wonderful, but exactly the way I recall Stove Top smelling, and I wondered why the heck I was bothering with all this.

Things got a little hairier once the broth was at a boil, because I was waffling about how much to actually add to the stuffing. I had my giant bowl full of crunchy bread cubes at the ready and started adding the celery and onion with a slotted spoon. Then I ladled in some broth. Then more of the aromatics. Etc. Etc.

Then I threw in the pecans, the apple, and most of a jar of Hormel real bacon bits. [All deviations!] If I did this again, I'd save about half the jar to garnish the top with. I saved maybe a fourth, and that wasn't enough to really create a top layer of bacony goodness. (It is probably cheaper and better to just fry and crumble your own bacon, but that would not have been well received at my house, given that the goods would be going into a dish that Spouse wasn't going to eat.)

But I still had some liquid in the pan, and not knowing where the line between too dry and too wet was, I decided to throw it all in. I might be more conservative with this next time, because I think the stuffing came out a tiny bit too wet. And yet, you don't want to risk it being dry, either. (Hence the waffling.)

I did a taste test and with the bacon in there I felt that I did not need to add salt.

The coolest part was that the mixture fit perfectly into my 9 x 13" pan. That was just plain luck.

When we got to Mom's, the pan went in the oven for about half an hour at 350 degrees. It didn't take on much color but I think that is because there were several other things sharing the oven space.

And my family thought it was mad crazy good. Dad even called Friday to tell me how much he liked it. (In fact, he said it was "Off. Da. Hook." No joke.)

Our grocery store plastic pepper grinder, which we've had for over a year, seems to be on its way out, because occasionally, eating the stuffing, you'd get a big POW! of pepper, which I am guessing means that the grind is too coarse. But nobody seemed to mind, and I actually really liked it.


  1. That DOES sound good! And also: cornbread is kind of fun to MAKE. Or maybe it isn't fun, but it does seem fun to me---I think because it's a simple recipe and doesn't have yeast in it. I like the Better Homes & Gardens recipe:

    1 cup flour
    1 cup cornmeal
    2-4 tablespoons sugar
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    2 eggs
    1 cup milk
    1/4 cup cooking oil or melted shortening

    Mix the dry stuff in one bowl and the wet stuff in another bowl, then mix them together just until smooth (it can get kind of trancey to stir things, so don't get hypnotized!). Then pour into a greased 9x9 pan and bake at 425 degrees F for 20-25 minutes.

    It freezes really well, too. I like to make a batch with chili, and then freeze each slice in a baggie and each serving of chili in a one-cup container, so I can take out one chili and one cornbread.

    Oh, also! The sugar! I like a lot of sugar, so when I make cornbread as a side dish I use a GENEROUS quarter cup (4 tablespoons). But if I were making it for stuffing, I think I'd use just a teense of sugar, like one teaspoon to one tablespoon.

  2. *pause for various SQUEEEE!noises* OMG!!! Comments! And a recipe! Holy crap! This is the best Monday ever! Now I have to, like, mail you cookies or something! Which I was thinking I might try to do anyway!

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. To the umpteenth power!