For about the first dozen years of my life, there were either pointed disagreements over the dressing/stuffing (heretofore to be referred to as dressing, because we don’t stuff), or two versions of it. My parents had two very distinct opinions on what the dressing should be, based on two very different cultural backgrounds, food-wise. Finally, there was a compromise, as described in the little flyer below that I created for a pot-luck Thanksgiving at work a few years ago to explain my contribution, my family’s holiday dressing.
My parents had finally decided to work together and create a new family recipe. I had a front-row seat for this cooking compromise party, which took place as we prepared for Thanksgiving in around 1976. My job was to write down the ingredients as they went in, and to be the stirrer and taster (and, if truth be told, a bit of a moderator). I sat at the bar in our kitchen (shown below in a shot from the 90s).
We assembled a huge amount of the dressing in a giant soup pot (photo from later years).
It was really fun tasting, adjusting and arguing a little (in a benevolent way), and somehow we all knew that we were making family history.
Oh, that Tasting and Document Role was a sweet assignment to position me for carrying forward the tradition! I learned first-hand exactly what this dressing should taste like, feel like, smell like – what it should BE. I have made it from memory, by feel, since I started making holiday dinners in my late 20s, and it has always been a WINNER.
The Early Documentation Lives On
I guess I’m not just making the dressing by feel, though…I have a reference: the notecard from that recipe-creation day, which my Mom pulled out every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and tweaked a little over the years (with Dad’s input and approval). The card is marked up and stained, bears my mother’s notes from other holiday meals, and is a treasure.
The problem has always been that, while I can make this quite easily by just throwing stuff in “’til it looks right,” as my grandmother used to say, I’ve never been able to document the amounts so that I could share the recipe. I make the dressing in huge amounts because everyone loves it and wants to take home leftovers, and I just taste it and make adjustments until it feels like that Thanksgiving in 1976.
The 2015 Effort
I tried really hard in 2015 to get it all sorted out, and recorded my efforts on the back of the original notecard. It wasn’t quite right, though…a little too moist.
This Year was the Year!
This year, I finally got serious a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and GOT IT DONE. The answer was to make a single recipe to hone in on the exact ratios. I nailed it on the first try! The Grill-Meister was the judge, and believe me, he is a great judge of recipes, giving me very specific input to make it better. This time, he had nothing but grunts of approval as he chowed down on the pre-Thanksgiving dressing bonus.
I share all of this background about the efforts to get the recipe documented to encourage you if you’re having the same problems with precious family dishes. I’ve found that it’s easy to create a new recipe and document it as you go, but capturing the pure absolute essence of an old family traditional dish you make by feel and with your heart is really hard. It’s worth it, though! Now I can imagine our sons and their families enjoying this dressing 50 years from now, and they have its origin story, too.
North-South Best Dressing with Sausage and Two Breads
Savory, flavorful and redolent with tradition, this dressing is always at the top of the family request list.
- 5 cups torn or cubed white bread (italian, french, even rolls, just not sandwich bread)
- 5 cups torn or cubed cornbread (from 1 package)
- 1 lb. pork sausage, regular or sage flavored (omit for a vegetarian version)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped green onion tops
- 3/4 cup diced celery, leafy tops included
- 3/4 cup diced yellow onion
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley, or 1 tsp dried parsley
- 3/4 tsp white pepper
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 1/2 tsp celery salt
- 1/4 tsp celery seed (can be omitted if you don't have it)
- 1 tsp sage
- 1 tsp dried thyme (leaves, not ground)
- 1 tsp dried rosemary
- 2 tbsp melted butter, cooled
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 cups chicken or turkey stock (or vegetable stock if you're going vegetarian)
- 1 tbsp softened butter
- Step 1 Do ahead: spread the white bread and cornbread pieces on a large cookie sheet and let them get stale for a day or two, or at least overnight. If you can’t do this ahead of time, dry them out in an oven set to 250°, for 45 minutes.
- Step 2 Coat a 13×9 casserole dish with cooking spray and set aside.
- Step 3 Cook the sausage, breaking it up as it cooks into the smallest pieces possible. Drain and set aside (saving the fat for use in another recipe).
- Step 4 Preheat the oven to 425°.
- Step 5 Put the torn bread and cornbread pieces in a large mixing bowl, and add the green onion tops, onion, celery, and fresh parsley, if you’re using it.
- Step 6 Pour the cooled melted butter into the bowl.
- Step 7 Combine the rest of the herbs and spices in a small bowl, mix thoroughly and add to the rest of the ingredients in the large bowl.
- Step 8 Pour the eggs into the bowl, then the cooked sausage.
- Step 9 Pour 1 3/4 cups of the stock into the bowl and stir to mix everything thoroughly. If the mixture seems dry, add the remaining 1/4 cup of stock. If it still seems dry, add a little more liquid – stock if you have it, white wine, beer, etc. (water as a last resort)
- Step 10 Pour the dressing mixture into the greased casserole dish and dot the top with the remaining 1 tbsp of butter.
- Step 11 Cook the dressing in the oven for 50 minutes, checking it at 40 to see how it is browning. It may take longer than 50 minutes to get your desired crusty top.
- Step 12 Serve hot.
Make It in Individual Servings
You can also make the stuffing in individual serving sizes, either in muffin tins, cast iron cornbread pans or tiny cast iron skillets. Cast iron creates a really nice crust, so you might want to go this direction if you want to maximize that crunchy goodness. You’ll need to heat the cast iron first to get the full effect, as described below.
Alternate cooking instructions for cast iron dishes
Spray cooking spray in the cast iron dishes and put them into the heated oven for 8 minutes, then remove, add the dressing, and dot the tops with butter. Cook for anywhere between 25 and 40 minutes.
Make Ahead and Freeze
You can also make the dressing ahead; don’t dot it with butter and just par-cook it for about 30 minutes, then cover tightly with foil and freeze. When you’re ready to cook it, thaw it first in the refrigerator overnight, dot it with butter, and cook as directed.
For My Vegetarian Friends
I’ve made a vegetarian version of the dressing, and because of all the herbs, it is very flavorful without the sausage. I haven’t tried a vegan version, but I think it could work, too, perhaps with pureed butternut squash instead of the eggs, and olive oil instead of butter. Let me know if you try it!
The Tradition Continues
We sent a group text to our family for Thanksgiving dinner requests, and here’s what the Musical Millennial said:
“Stuffing is essential! That’s really my main request.”
My parents are smiling. They’ll be with us in spirit on Thanksgiving, and maybe I’ll tell this story to everyone…once again.
And next year, someone other than me can make the dressing!