This post was supposed to end much differently. You see, we did something special at my house for Thanksgiving this year. I challenged my mom to a "Stuffing Smackdown." Now I'm one of those people that likes to do virtually everything homemade--and my mom does too, for the most part. But she likes bagged stuffing. In my unofficial stuffing research, I discovered that most people think adding their own combination of ingredients to Pepperidge Farm bags of stuffing counts as homemade. I don't. The challenge was on.
The sign on the front door greeting visitors
Now my good friend Creg raised a good point: "Didn't your homemade stuffing over the past few years really suck? If you're going to propose a throw-down, shouldn't it be something you're really good at?" Fair enough. Good point. My sister Zoe and I had tried two different recipes over the past few years and yes, they'd turned out pretty badly. One too soggy, one without much flavor. But this year was different. I decided to adapt this recipe, leaving out the cranberries, and adding a little more celery and sausage. How could cornbread sausage stuffing not win?
We set out, making our stuffing at separate times in the kitchen, asking family members for taste tests and hints about which way they were leaning. I considered bribes, but ultimately knew I didn't need any help. My stuffing would be the clear winner.
Mom and Megan with their final products
So folks arrived, Zoe made her famous holiday punch with ample vodka, Cointreau, and a bit of pomegranate juice. We caught up. We watched that really odd 80's dance party that they play on KOFY right around this time of the year. Then we set up the stuffing sampling area and called the troops in.
Stuffing signage and voting cards: ready and waiting
The rules were simple: you tried each stuffing. We didn't force any considerations on people (texture, flavor etc.)--we just wanted to know their gut reaction: which stuffing is the ultimate king? After voting, you were to fold up your ballot, put it in the top-secret glass, and my cousin Kelsey announced the winner at dinner.
Consulting each other on the best stuffing
Well, the fateful moment came. In the first line of this post, I might've given you a hint as to who won. I have to mention a quick caveat: I think having the stuffing in the bird is a huge advantage that we, somehow, need to take into account. My sister Rachael suggested someone (namely, her) needs to invent a stuffing separator for the bird so people have the opportunity to stuff it with two different recipes. Until she patents that, however, my mom's Pepperidge Farm stuffing was certainly more moist and flavorful although mine had more color, interesting textures, and the sausage was a bit hit. Sweet, sweet Kelsey decided we should mention the good things about the loser first--very diplomatic. She's had good teachers somewhere along the line. She spoke about how she found the sausage quite delicious. Then she went on to make the big announcement: It was 8-3, with Pepperidge Farm leading it this year. The "Traditional family-oriented really good stuffing" took down the "Rock me all night long stuffing."
It happens. My wheels are turning for what improvements can be made next year. And the cool thing: we've got other entrants lined up for the next go-around. My friend Creg mentioned he'll be entering, and my cousin Elliot is planning on bringing a recipe to enter into the mix. So while I think there were subtleties of my incredible stuffing that were lost on the under 12 crowd, who knew that we'd start a new family tradition?
For my mom's recipe, you need to simply consult the bag of Pepperidge Farm. A little broth, some onions and a little celery and call it a day. Now 8-3 is a pretty big loss. So why, you may ask, are you about to give me the recipe for that losing stuffing? While it's a fair and logical question, most everyone agreed that with a little more broth and a chance to sit in the bird's cavity, it would've been a close race. So this stuffing is quite tasty, I assure you. In fact, I just had some for breakfast. The cornbread is buttery and moist and the celery, leeks, and pecans add nice flavor and texture. And of course, who doesn't love sausage? So I encourage you to give this recipe a try next time your family decides to have a Stuffing Smackdown--or really any old time when you're looking for a hearty, fall side dish. I think you'll like it.
Rock Me All Night Long Cornbread Stuffing
Adapted from: Epicurious
For the recipe below, you make the loaves of cornbread first, dry them out in the oven, and then move on to the actual stuffing. Feel free to make the loaves one or even two days in advance as they can be as stale as can be for the stuffing.
Makes: 2 loaves
Ingredients (Cornbread Only)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups milk
2 large eggs
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
Preparation (Cornbread Only)
1. Preheat oven to 400° F. and butter two 9-by-5-by-3 inch loaf pans.
2. Into a large bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt and whisk in cornmeal and sugar until combined well.
3. In a bowl whisk together milk and eggs until just combined. Add butter to flour mixture and with an electric mixer beat until mixture resembles coarse meal. Beat in egg mixture until just combined (batter will be thin).
4. Pour batter into pans and bake in middle of oven until golden and a tester comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Cool corn bread in pans on a rack 10 minutes and turn out onto rack to cool completely. Corn bread may be wrapped in plastic wrap and kept in a cool, dry place 2 days or frozen 2 weeks.
Ingredients (For Stuffing)
Makes: 12 cups
1 1/2 loaves corn bread
2 cups pecans
6 leeks (about 1 pound; white and pale green parts only)
4 celery ribs
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3/4 pound sweet Italian sausage (about 4 links)
1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leafed parsley leaves
2 cups chicken broth
Preparation (For Stuffing)
1. Preheat oven to 325° F. Cut corn bread into 1/2-inch cubes and in 2 large shallow baking pans bake in middle of oven until just dry, about 25 minutes. Transfer cubes from 1 pan to a large bowl and in pan toast pecans in oven until insides are golden, 10 to 15 minutes. While toasting, chop parsley.
2. Halve leeks lengthwise and then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces. In a bowl of cold water wash leeks well and lift from water into a sieve to drain. Chop celery. In a 12-inch skillet cook leeks and celery in butter with salt and pepper to taste over moderately low heat, stirring, until leeks are tender, about 25 minutes.
3. Remove sausage from casings and break into pieces. Add sausage to leek mixture and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, or until sausage is cooked through.
4. To bowl of corn bread add pecans, sausage mixture, parsley, broth, and salt and pepper to taste and toss together. Cool stuffing completely. Stuffing may be made up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring stuffing to room temperature before proceeding.
For cooking stuffing inside poultry:
Any frozen poultry destined for stuffing should be completely thawed, and the stuffing itself brought to room temperature before it's put into the turkey. Do not stuff your bird the night before you cook it; such a seeming time-saver can have dangerous results. Instead, it is best to loosely fill the bird's neck and body cavities immediately before roasting. And always use a meat or instant-read thermometer: The meat is done when the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh (be careful not to touch the bones) reaches 180°F.; the stuffing baked inside the bird is done at 160°-165°F. After roasting, let your stuffed poultry stand 15 to 20 minutes, a double assurance that the requisite temperatures for food safety have been reached.
For cooking all or part of stuffing outside poultry:
In a shallow baking dish bake stuffing in preheated 325° F. oven 1 hour (for moist stuffing, bake covered entire time; for less moist stuffing with a slightly crisp top, uncover halfway through baking time).