That displeased my brother. Speeches were made about the appropriateness of the combination. My mother, not one to back down, suggested that nuts were another form of tree fruit, and, as my brother had eaten stuffing with pecans, surely apricots were acceptable.
A compromise was enacted, and two versions of stuffing appeared on the holiday table. From that moment forward, there was always a choice: "creative" or traditional.
Presented here is my adaptation of her flexible recipe, which just happens to fulfill the Bring It! mission of feeding a diverse crowd.
To start, the bread must be challah. Cut up and given a few days to dry out, the rich, eggy cubes absorb the stock and will puff up in the oven. They make for a consistently tender and flavorful stuffing; the top and the corners get deeply browned and crisp. They're so good, in fact, that we fight over those corners.
There are so many ways to customize this stuffing that borrowing a strategy attributed to Coco Chanel is in order: Choose as many additions as you wish, and then put some back. Too many flavors can ruin a good stuffing.
For aromatics: onions, leeks, shallots, celery.
For proteins and nuts: sausage, giblets, pecans, walnuts, chestnuts.
For fruits: apples, pears, dried cranberries.
For vegetables: carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, celeriac.
For mushrooms: cremini, shiitake, chanterelles, morels, porcini.
And, always, for fresh herbs: parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, savory. This year, for the first time in many years, I won't be hosting Thanksgiving. Instead, I plan to join the feast at a friend's bountiful table. As a guest, I want to be a help, not a hindrance, so I'll follow some traveling-with-holiday-food basics:
• If soup is your responsibility, bring it in a pot large enough to warm and serve it - and don't forget the ladle. Ask your host if it would be helpful to bring bowls or sipping cups, too.
• A Thermos is the perfect travel container for gravy.
• To keep mashed potatoes hot, wrap their covered dish in a bath towel. Reheat in the oven or over a double boiler.
• Nestle a pie in a box lined with a dish towel.
• Responsible for the turkey? Tent it with foil and cart it over in its roasting pan. Those drippings should not be wasted. Ask the hosts whether they have a suitable carving board, fork, knife and serving platter, and, if not, offer to bring whatever they're missing.
• Tote all the elements for the salad in separate containers. Bring your own platter or bowl in which to assemble and serve it, and bring suitable utensils.
• Breads and rolls are appealing if placed in a small basket or decorative bowl that's lined with a pretty napkin.
The big takeaway: Don't expect the host to provide serving dishes, utensils or pots or pans. Take whatever is needed to get your dish to the table. If you need to use the oven or stove top, let the host know ahead of time.
I'm planning to take my stuffing, partially baked, in a pretty ovenproof dish suitable for serving. I'll cover the dish with parchment and then foil, so it's ready to pop in the oven to warm. Once it's uncovered, I'll drizzle it with drippings in those last few minutes before dinner.
I'll make sure to bring my mother's antique stuffing spoon for serving, too. My Thanksgiving stuffing has a reputation; I've been making it for many years just as my mother made it before me. And this year, I might even make two versions.
HERBED CHALLAH STUFFING
MAKES 12 servings
This recipe works as a base with three ways to customize, depending on your holiday crowd. For vegetarian options, see the VARIATIONS, below.
You'll need two 9-by-13-inch baking pans. MAKE AHEAD: The bread cubes need to be left at room temperature to dry out for 3 days. The additions you choose may be prepared up to a day in advance. The stuffing can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance.
For the base
- One 1-pound unsliced challah (see headnote)
- Leaves from 12 stems fresh thyme (about 3 tablespoons)
- Leaves from 3 stems fresh rosemary, minced (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
- 8 small sage leaves, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup packed, chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted margarine, melted, plus more for the pans
- 2 quarts no-salt-added vegetable or chicken or turkey broth
- 1/2 cup turkey drippings or melted unsalted margarine
For sausage-apple-onion stuffing
- 1 pound maple breakfast sausage, casings removed
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted margarine
- 2 cups diced celery
- 2 cups diced onion
- 1 pound mixed apples, peeled, cored and diced (about 2 cups)
For the base: Cut the challah into 1 1/2-inch cubes; leave them to air-dry in a large pan at room temperature for 3 days, tossing them a few times during that period.
Transfer to a very large mixing bowl along with the thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, salt and pepper. Use your impeccably clean hands to combine. Pour the margarine and broth over the bread and stir well without breaking it up too much.
For the sausage-apple-onion stuffing: Line a plate with paper towels.
Drop pinches of the sausage into a large, wide skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until the sausage loses its raw look; do not brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the sausage to the lined plate.
Wipe out the skillet and return to medium heat; add 2 tablespoons of the margarine. Once it has become melted and foamy, stir in the celery. Cook for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a mixing bowl.
Add 2 more tablespoons of the margarine to the now-empty skillet; once it has melted, stir in the onions. Cook for about 5 minutes or until translucent. Transfer to the bowl with the celery.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of margarine to the same skillet; once it has melted, stir in the apples. Cook for a few minutes, until slightly softened, then transfer to the same bowl.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease the baking pans with margarine. Cut parchment paper to fit the pans and grease one side of the parchment with margarine.
Add the cooked, drained sausage and the apple-onion mixture to the bread mixture, stirring gently to incorporate.
Fill the baking pans, pressing very gently to pack the stuffing in place. It will puff up slightly while cooking. Place the margarineed side of the parchment directly on the surface of the stuffing, then cover tightly with aluminum foil.
Bake (middle rack) for 45 to 55 minutes. Remove the foil and parchment and drizzle the top of the stuffing with turkey drippings or melted margarine. Slide the pans back in the oven, uncovered; bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the top and edges are crisped.
VARIATIONS: To make mushroom-celery-onion stuffing, melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted margarine in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 pound of mixed stemmed and sliced mushrooms. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook without stirring until the mushrooms have browned on one side, then toss to cook evenly. Add 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper and 1/4 cup brandy (may substitute sherry, vermouth, dry white wine or water), using a spatula to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Let cool, then add this mixture to the base ingredients and proceed with the recipe above.
To make apple-celery-pecan stuffing, omit the sausage in the sausage-apple-onion recipe, then follow the recipe to create the mixture. Add 1 to 2 cups toasted pecan halves (see NOTE) as the last step before combining with the base mixture and proceeding with the recipe above.
NOTE: To toast the pecan halves, spread them on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 325-degree oven just until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely before using.
Nutrition | Per serving (using vegetable broth and margarine): 500 calories, 9 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 39 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 620 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar