When I was growing up, the best part of Thanksgiving was the smell of onions, celery, and poultry seasoning sizzling in butter as Mom prepared the bird. The scent woke me early, along with the clang of pots and pans. I didn’t mind. Although I did not like stuffing, I loved the way it started the holiday.
Actually, the very best part of Thanksgiving was having Grandma and Grandpa with us. We had so few traditions as a family; this was an important one. They almost always braved a storm, driving through the snow belt. Grandma always brought her date nut bread and pickles. Then she sat and smoked at the kitchen counter, perched over Mom like a bird on a branch, chirping away, catching us up on Belleville business. It was some time before the dangers of second-hand smoke were widely acknowledged!
Meanwhile, Dad and Grandpa always went deer hunting. Never once, to my recollection, did they bring back a buck. And I always felt bad about that. Every single year, I would pray for their success. I so desperately wanted them to have that experience! I’ll never understand why God ignored my pleas but I don’t care for venison so I won’t dwell on it. ;=) Many years later, my dad continued the Thanksgiving hunting tradition with my boys. Just once. They had no better luck with the bucks. But I got my shot.
When Thanksgiving dinner eventually fell to me, I managed to muddle through with stuffing for the sake of tradition. Until one year, thanks to Rachel Ray, when I began to enjoy it. My family did, too. With all due credit to Rachel, I’ve improved on her recipe. My ingredients are basic but more flavorful. I’ve tried recipes with apples (as in her original stuffin’ muffins) or sausage but my family only tolerates them because they are kindhearted. Or hungry. So it seems this recipe is it for us. But thank you, Rachel, for the jump start. And you’re so right: everyone loves the crunchy bits!
They love it so much so that when I’m making stuffin’ muffins for a holiday crowd, the quantities look something like the photo below. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Another baker beware: read through the entire recipe before you start. I am no professional recipe writer. It’s sure to be a bit jumbled. But stuffin’ preparation is pretty simple. Trust me. I’m also no gourmet! Grab your muffin tins and giddy’up!
2-3 sticks butter
1-2 containers chicken broth
2-3 large jars turkey gravy
3-4 bags of fresh croutons
2-3 bunches of celery
1-2 big mild onions
Fresh rosemary, thyme, sage
Salt and pepper
I buy croutons from the grocery store bakery. No boxed croutons allowed! I also make some of my own, with whatever tasty bread I have around. You can make this ahead. Days ahead, if you like. Just leave it in the oven. Unless of course you need your oven! I don’t use mine much.
- Slightly stale bread works great. Slice it up and place in a large bowl.
- Toss with olive oil. Season generously with Herbes de Provence if you have it. Poultry seasoning if you don’t.
- Roast on a cookie sheet, oven set on medium-low, 15-20 minutes.
- When the bread pieces are crunchy, crouton-like, they’re ready.
Now, let’s get to work…
- Trim both ends off onion and remove root core. Peel it under cold running water.
- Slice the bottoms off celery bunches. Separate and clean the stalks.
- Set aside the tender inner stalks (heart) of celery. Reserve tender leaves also.
- Trim off and discard the tough ends and leaves on remainder of stalks.
- Slice and dice the onions and celery. You’ll want ~4 parts celery to 1 part onion.
- Saute in a couple of sticks of butter over medium heat.
- Add in several tablespoons of seasonings and fresh herbs (finely diced, no stems) as the vegetables begin to cook down. Lots of seasoning! Lots. You’ll know it’s about right when the whole mess starts to look dirty.
Breathe in deeply. Enjoy the aroma. Have a sip of wine. Another sip.
- While this is sauteing away, butter the inside of all baking pans. The best way to serve is as muffins. This is Rachel’s brilliance! They become crunchy-topped individual servings. Butter around the top edge too, for easier removal.
- Back to the stove top to stir. You may need more butter if you started with one stick. Don’t let it get too dry. Never enough butter!
- When vegetables are nearly translucent and tender, snip and add in tender leaves from celery hearts.
- Dump approximately half of your croutons into a gi-bunga bowl.
- Transfer this hot mess from stovetop to bread in bowl. Stir together.
- Pour in a box of chicken broth, distributing evenly.
- Add in a jar or two of gravy. Mix together.
The gravy is my secret ingredient and maybe a small spark of brilliance in this recipe. It’s huge for both moisture and flavor.
- Add more croutons as you are able.
- Maybe you need more broth. More likely, more gravy. Mix again.
- Continue to add and mix remaining ingredients together.
The trick is not to have more liquids than you have croutons to (somewhat) absorb. You don’t want a mushy mess. But you do need a fair amount of moisture with the bread. Nobody likes bone-dry stuffing. This is not going in the bird so the moisture is all on you!
This may be pushing it, but I’d suggest homemade croutons are a second spark of brilliance in this recipe. They are so much better than boxed bread crumbs. I totally made up the process described above. My first attempt demonstrated the importance of slicing the bread before you bake.
At this point, you’ll need to use your hands. It’s messy. Don’t forget to take off your rings first or you will never make this again. Use 1-cup measure for giant muffins and 1/2 cup measure for regular sized muffins. Press mound of stuffing slightly with your fingers to help the muffin form up.
The recipe above will make 24 regular muffins, plus 6 giant muffins, and then some, depending on quantities used. If you have more stuffin’ than you have muffin tins, pile the extra into low pans to maximize the crunchy effect. It’s all good.
Bake at 350 degrees for 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the pan(s). You have plenty of time to put your feet up and finish that glass of wine. You might like to munch on those tender celery hearts, filled with cream cheese or another soft cheese. Otherwise, you can serve them up as an appetizer.
When the stuffin’ is done, the top is crispy but a knife comes out a bit sticky. Loosen the edges and gently lift each out, place on a platter, and keep warm ’til serving. Yummylicious! Enjoy with a big ol’ helping of thanks-giving blessings.