Thanksgiving may have passed, but stuffing season is not over. This sweet-and-savory side dish has been around since the Roman Empire, used by a chef named Apicius to stuff roasted rabbits, pigs, chickens and, shockingly, mice. The first stuffing recipes are recognizably similar to contemporary versions, an amalgamation of nuts, herbs, vegetables, spices and grains. The mixture would also have contained, with a sort of gruesome irony, the organ meats of the animals to be filled. This is still the case; if you Google “stuffing with giblets,” “stuffing with liver” or “stuffing with gizzards,” you’ll find recipes aplenty instructing cooks to put organs right back into the birds from which they were so recently separated.
Aside from the innards question, there are as many possible ingredients for stuffing (or dressing, which is the correct term if it’s being cooked separately from the bird or other animal) as there are, well, ingredients. Some folks like to try a new stuffing recipe every year, which sounds delightful. In our family, however, there is only One True Stuffing (technically dressing) that we will ever eat, and that is my mom’s cornbread stuffing, which I guess is actually my grandmother Esther’s cornbread stuffing and perhaps even my great-grandmother Ruth’s cornbread stuffing. Wherever and whenever it originated, it’s one of the non-negotiable items on our Thanksgiving table, along with candied yams (actually sweet potatoes), mashed potatoes with lots of butter and cream and roast turkey with scratch-made whole cranberry relish. (As far as pies go, it’s got to be apple and pumpkin. A third pie of any flavor is also acceptable, but only as long as there’s apple and pumpkin.)
I don’t use a recipe for the stuffing because I make it by heart every year — and it really does come from my heart, because I make it with a not-quite-reverential longing for my mother, with whom I had a difficult relationship but whom I nevertheless miss in a primal way. She was tough but oh, how she loved me. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m in the middle of a particularly long, wet, relentlessly gray and dark winter and I ache for a glimpse of the sun. Only in this metaphor the sun would tell me that I am loading the dishwasher wrong and how can I let my bathroom sink get so dirty and Christmas would be so much easier if I didn’t put off shopping until the last minute like I do with everything else and have I considered coloring my gray hair?
But back to stuffing. I’ll give you a general idea of how I make it and you can take it from there, doubling the recipe or adding other ingredients to your taste. I start with baking a standard cornbread recipe, which fills an 8-by-8-inch pan. I usually make it from scratch using the recipe off a box of Albers cornmeal because it makes a less-sweet cornbread than packaged mixes. However, this year I broke my own rule and made a box mix from Trader Joe’s, which is on the sweet side but I like it because it contains a smattering of whole corn kernels.
I let the cornbread cool on the counter while I prep the other ingredients. If the sides and bottoms of the cornbread are a little too brown, or if your cornbread ends up being a tad dry, don’t sweat it because later you’re going to remoisten it with chicken broth and other good things. In fact, you can make the cornbread a day ahead and let it dry out overnight so that it will be more effective at soaking up flavors. The only difficulty about this stage is that the cornbread smells so good and it will be so tempting to take a chunk out of the corner while it’s still warm and spread it with butter. I say, go ahead. Who’s going to know?
Finely chop a whole head of celery, including the leaves. Next, dice a whole extra-large onion. Saute them both in a big skillet with 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil or a quarter-stick of butter, more or less. Add more butter or oil as needed. Also add ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon lemon pepper and 10 minced fresh sage leaves. The fresh sage is crucial and I hope you like sage because we’re going to be adding even more when we assemble the dressing. Yes, that’s a lot of sage, but that’s what makes it taste so good! Anyhow, cook the celery and onion until it’s quite tender and just starting to turn translucent, then take it off the heat.
Break up the cornbread into small chunks and crumbles in a large ungreased baking dish. Scrape the sauteed celery and onions into the cornbread. Mix everything together and taste for salt, but be cautious because soon you’ll be adding salty broth. Beat two eggs in a small bowl and pour them over the cornbread. Add five more chopped fresh sage leaves. Mix everything together again, then pop open a can or box of chicken stock.
Here’s where it becomes hard to quantify, because I don’t have a set amount for the stock. I just pour it over the cornbread, celery, onion and egg mixture until it feels right. You want it to be evenly moist, but not sopping wet. You want it to crisp up a bit when it cooks in the oven and not be mushy and raw in the middle. I can tell you that I never use a whole can of broth and if I’m using a big box, I have enough left over to make a soup. The key is to spread the damp stuffing evenly over the pan in a 1- or 2-inch layer, so that it bakes like a sponge cake. When it’s done, it should be crowned by little toasted bits of pleasingly crunchy cornbread.
In this, I differ from my female forbears. They made their stuffing (or dressing, to be accurate) in a big Dutch oven, sort of steaming it rather than toasting it. My mom fairly drenched it with broth and every year she’d suffer paroxysms because her stuffing just wouldn’t cook in the middle and every year dinner would have to be delayed until it was done. I do not deny that it was delicious beyond reason. It just took too dang long to cook.
As for my version, I set the oven to 350 degrees and bake it for an hour, uncovered, checking every so often to make sure the top isn’t getting too toasted. After an hour, you can pull it out of the oven and poke a knife in the middle to see if it’s done. You can even get yourself a little spoonful and taste it. It’s done when it’s more springy than mushy. A brown crust may have formed around the edges and on the bottom, like a loaf of bread, but that’s just fine; in fact, I love those chewy bits. Serve it by scooping it into a bowl and breaking it up until it’s attractive or just bring the whole pan to the table. You can also make this a day ahead and it will taste great. But my very favorite thing is to leave it in the fridge overnight after the big meal and have it cold for breakfast on the morning after.
There’s no doubt Mom would tell me I’m doing it wrong. If she were here, I’d let her make the cornbread any way she pleased — and load the dishwasher according to her rules, and clean my bathroom sinks according to her standards and maybe even let her give me the number of her hairdresser, although I’d be forced to point out that I inherited my gray-in-my-30s hair directly from her. I would not sass her (much) or argue (much). I’d just bask in the fierce warmth of her love and say thank you.