For many, the Thanksgiving dinner's centerpiece isn't the turkey. It's the stuffing.
With its decadent butter-egg richness, stuffing is basically a savory bread pudding. It's also one of those remarkably flexible formulas, able to take on a wide variety of flavors.
Use any bread (country white, baguette, challah), and keep or discard the crusts. If using prepackaged croutons or breadcrumbs, be sure that they are unseasoned.
Add what tastes good: chestnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, slivered almonds, capers, poblano peppers, pitted prunes, drained sauerkraut, cooked wild rice.
When it's prepared in a baking pan — which is the smart way to go, food safety-wise, rather than stuffing it into the bird's cavity — the dish is officially called dressing. One other difference: Dressing uses eggs as a binding agent.
Today, the names are basically interchangeable. This dish can be prepared in advance, then finished in the oven just before it's time to eat.
Classic Thanksgiving Stuffing
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This basic herb formula can be prepared in a multitude of variations. Adapted from Saveur magazine, "Seasons Greetings" (Chronicle Books) and "American Home Cooking" (William Morrow).
• 10 c. 1/2-in. cubes white bread (about 1 lb.)
• 10 tbsp. (1 stick plus 2 tbsp.) butter, divided, plus extra for pan
• 1 finely chopped yellow onion (about 1 c.)
• 6 ribs finely chopped celery (about 1 c.)
• Bay leaf
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 1 tbsp. finely chopped sage (or 1 tsp. dried)
• 1 tbsp. finely chopped savory (or 1 tsp. dried)
• 1 tbsp. finely chopped marjoram (or 1 tsp. dried)
• 1 tbsp. finely chopped thyme (or 1 tsp. dried)
• 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
• 1/2 c. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 1/4 c. finely chopped green onions (or 1 tbsp. finely chopped chives)
• 3 c. turkey or chicken stock
• 2 eggs, beaten
Butter the bottom and sides of 9- by 13-inch baking dish.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread bread cubes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted (stirring every 10 minutes), about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter. Add onions, celery, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste and cook until vegetables are soft, about 12 to 15 minutes. Add sage, savory, marjoram, thyme and nutmeg and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove bay leaf.
In a large bowl, combine toasted bread with onion-celery mixture, parsley and green onions (or chives). Add the stock, 1 cup at a time, until bread mixture is very moist (reserve remaining stock, if any). Add eggs and mix. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish. Lightly press mixture into pan, then dot the top of the pan with small pieces of the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. (At this point, stuffing can be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours). Cover baking pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and continue baking until top is golden brown, about 20 to 25 additional minutes. Remove from oven, let rest for 5 minutes and serve.
Alternative 1: Take out the green onions (or chives), use 1 less beaten egg and add 1 cup cooked cranberry sauce, 1 medium tart apple (such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and chopped), 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, 1/2 c. golden raisins and 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots.
Alternative 2: Add 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (or 1/4 cup pine nuts) with 1 cup thinly sliced wild or button mushrooms that have been sautéed in butter for 5 to 7 minutes over medium heat.
Alternative 3: Add 1 medium tart apple (such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and chopped) and 2 strips crisply cooked bacon, chopped.
Alternative 4: Add 1 cup cooked (and drained) crumbled sausage (breakfast sausage with sage is a good choice), 1 medium tart apple (such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and chopped) and 1 cup chopped pecans.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib