First, accept my apologies for committing the cardinal sin of posting without a photo. I wrote this draft at Thanksgiving (obviously); I got caught up in the holiday celebrations and forgot to bring out my camera. A modestly edited version of this post currently appears on The Lyon Review, Mount Holyoke College (my alma mater)’s literary magazine, in their food issue.
Renowned chef and author David Leibovitz said on a recent blog post about helpful kitchen tips that we shouldn’t substitute ingredients when following a recipe. His reasoning is that the author has put in a lot of time, experience and experimentation in creating that recipe, and you should respect that.
I certainly agree with the logic, even though it goes against my blog’s reason for being (“Think outside the recipe” is my tagline, after all). I do put time and thought into my recipes, tweaking them to get them just right. And I certainly have respect for the cooks who wrote the recipes in cookbooks or on blogs, as well as the brilliant David Lebovitz himself, who knows a heck of a lot more about cooking than I do.
Here’s where I run into a problem with that sentiment: I think it’s essential for good cooks to be able to think on their feet. That skill develops when you are willing to veer outside the lines.
This issue came up with our Thanksgiving dressing. (Yes, dressing; we are not “stuffing” people in our house.) My Grandma Ruth’s dressing is the only way to fly. It’s very simple: Riley’s beef sausage, Nabisco Royal Lunch crackers, onion, sage, and water.
Here’s the thing: Riley’s, a small-town butcher shop in Massachusetts who made their own sausage, closed a good twenty years ago, and Nabisco stopped making Royal Lunch crackers in 2007. (At this posting, onion and sage are still available.)
Through experimentation, we’ve found that plain, uncooked (not smoked or cured) beef bratwurst is a very close substitute for Riley’s sausage. The crackers are more of a challenge. We’ve tried Saltines, Bremner’s Wafers, and panko breadcrumbs with mixed results. Last year, I used a combination of unsalted water crackers, oyster crackers, and stale but excellent white bread. The result was delicious, if not exactly the same as Grandma Ruth’s. This year, my mother sent me a box of Heritage Mills Classic Milk Lunch Crackers, which are a near-perfect match. (We’re looking for a dry, very bland cracker; they are the blank canvas that lets the other ingredients shine.)
When I was a youngster, we’d pull out the old cast-iron meat grinder when it was time to make the dressing. I use a food processor now. I finish by squishing the whole mixture between my fingers to get the right texture anyway, so I don’t miss the grinder.
In the olden days, we cooked the dressing inside the turkey. Since I tend toward obsession with food safety, my dressing cooks alongside the turkey in its own pan. But without the constant bath of turkey juices, the dressing lacked flavor. So I now use chicken stock to replace half the water.
The best part of the dressing is the crunchy golden crust. Enter the muffin tin; now each diner has a generous serving of crust. To prevent the dressing “muffins” from becoming too dry, I increase the proportion of liquid to dry in the mix, and lightly baste the tops with melted butter before they go in the oven. Boosting the oven temperature allows the crust to develop quickly, while keeping the centers moist.
What it comes down to is this: We honored Grandma Ruth’s recipe for as long as we could. It can be especially painful to experiment with holiday dishes, but if we weren’t able and willing to alter the original recipe, my grandmother’s beloved dressing would have been lost. I think of her every time I serve our version. She would approve.
Grandma Ruth’s Sausage Stuffing (modern-day version)
makes a 9-inch pan or casserole, or about 9 “muffins”
1 box (1 lb.) Heritage Mills Classic Lunch Milk Crackers (or other bland, dry, unsalted crackers)
1 medium onion, quartered
2-3 raw (not cured or smoked) bratwurst, preferably beef
3/4 cup chicken stock
3/4 cup water (or more)
1/2 tsp. dried sage
1 tsp. mild cooking oil
salt to taste
1 tbs. melted butter, about, optional
If you can, prepare the raw dressing mixture several hours or even a full day before you plan to cook it. This allows the cracker crumbs to hydrate and the flavors to meld.
Break the crackers into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until they’re mostly fine crumbs with a few small pieces left. Pour into a bowl. Pulse the onion in the food processor until it’s very finely chopped; if it purées that’s fine. Add about 3/4 of the cracker crumbs to a big bowl. Pour the onion on top, then add the stock. Squeeze the sausages out of their casings onto the mixture. Add the sage and pepper.
Squeeze the mixture between your fingers, adding water as necessary, until the mixture is very moist but not runny, and well combined. Add more of the reserved crackers if it’s too runny, or if you want more of a cracker-to-sausage ratio. The mixture should be a little more moist if you’re planning on cooking in muffin tins than if you’re baking it in a casserole.
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add a rounded teaspoonful or so of the dressing mixture. Flatten it slightly and cook, flipping once, for about 3-5 minutes until it’s cooked through. Taste. If it needs salt (or pepper, or more sage), adjust the seasonings in the raw mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate, ideally for several hours.
When you’re ready to cook, pack the mixture into a greased 9-inch pan or casserole dish. Bake along with your turkey. If it’s at 350 degrees F, give it about 45 minutes; if you’re at 400 degrees F, 30 minutes will do.
Or fill very well-greased muffin cups to heaping with the dressing mixture. Brush the tops with melted butter. Bake for about 20 minutes until cooked through and browned on top. If this is a side dish with turkey, you can pop the dressing in the oven (400 degrees F, please) as soon as the turkey comes out; the dressing will cook while the turkey rests.
Serve hot, with turkey and gravy. Or mash the dressing, warmed or cold, onto some good bread for a post-dinner sandwich, with or without turkey and cranberry sauce.