I have never quite understood the proliferation of Thanksgiving recipes that fill the pages of food publications every November.
Isn’t Thanksgiving all about eating the same things with the same people on the same day year after year? No one wants to be surprised with a new way of serving turkey that involves pomegranates and fontina.
That said, traditions evolve. Sometimes, a creative twist on something familiar is all that’s needed to keep things from getting too predictable.
Many years ago I was given a copy of Nigella Lawson’s 2004 cookbook Feast for Christmas and spent a good part of the following year obsessing over all the recipes I was going to cook for my next holiday gathering. I was particularly infatuated with her recipe for gingerbread stuffing, which struck me as something novel that made perfect sense. And it seemed like a potential antidote to the cloyingly oversweet cornbread stuffing (sorry, dressing) I was confronted with at every holiday meal with my central Mississippi-born husband’s family.
Alas, Nigella’s recipe turned out to be not quite what I was expecting: it was a little too sweet and cakelike for my taste — more like a savory dessert than something meant to sit beside mashed potatoes and candied yams and green bean casserole. (Yes, I can keep it traditional with the best of them.)
After a few experiments, I figured out that substituting about half of the bread in a standard stuffing recipe — by which I mean the recipe on the back of a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing — with gingerbread was the perfect compromise.
Now, about that gingerbread. Nigella specifies a brand of packaged gingerbread that we don’t have on this side of the pond. So, in a sentimental attempt to incorporate the spirit of another one of my culinary idols into the feast, I tried using M.F.K. Fisher’s recipe for her mother Edith’s gingerbread as published in her 1942 wartime classic How to Cook a Wolf, which produces a sturdy loaf that’s perfect as a stuffing base. (Fisher’s recipe has been widely anthologized and is easy enough to find online, but anyone even remotely interested in food should have a copy of her book handy anyway.)
While the extra step is well worth the effort, there have been times when I simply didn’t want to deal with more baking. In those cases, I’ve turned to another icon to assist with the recipe: Betty Crocker. Betty’s gingerbread cake and cookie mix is available in most supermarkets.
For the rest, you can use any bread you like — I’ve used everything from sourdough to ciabatta to a week-old loaf of Ledenheimer’s po-boy bread when cooking for Thanksgiving in New Orleans, all with good results. But if you’re pressed for time, just look for Pepperidge Farm cubed stuffing mix and dial down the salt and other seasonings in the recipe.
If you use fresh bread, though, remember to dry it out a bit in a slack oven or toast lightly before combining it with the wet ingredients, the better to soak everything up. That goes for the gingerbread, too.
This recipe adapts well to whatever personal variations or additions you and your family expect in a stuffing: sausage (crumbled fennel-flavored Italian sausage works especially well), dried fruits like apricots or cranberries, pecans or chestnuts. After all, there’s only so much change you want to see on your Thanksgiving table.
GINGERBREAD STUFFING (AFTER NIGELLA LAWSON)
This recipe makes an enormous amount of stuffing, at least 20 generous servings. It can be halved if you don’t mind having some stale gingerbread lying around, but leftovers freeze well and reheat fantastically — especially when cut into slices and sauteed in a pan with a little butter.
½ cup salted butter (1 stick)
4 stalks celery, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 large onions, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 cup chopped Italian parsley, plus additional for garnish
1 loaf gingerbread, cooled, cubed, and dried or lightly toasted in a 250° F oven (approx. 10 cups)
1 loaf bread of equal size to gingerbread, or 1 package (14 oz.) Pepperidge Farm herb-seasoned stuffing mix (approx. 10 cups)
1 Tbsp. ground thyme
1 Tbsp. ground sage
½ Tbsp. ground ginger
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
5-6 cups vegetable broth (homemade or, more likely, Better Than Bouillion)
- Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven and sauté the celery and onion until softened. Add the parsley and sauté briefly. Remove from heat and let cool.
- In the largest mixing bowl you have, crumble together the gingerbread and other bread (or dry stuffing mix) and add the thyme, sage, and ginger. Gently fold in the celery, onions, and parsley. Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper and gently mix.
- Generously butter a roasting pan or Dutch oven, transfer the mixture to it, and pour about half of the vegetable stock over it and toss gently. Cover and put aside until ready to bake (you can refrigerate it overnight at this point if you want to prepare it the night before — just bring it to room temperature for 20 minutes or so before popping it into the oven later).
- Cover with foil and bake in a 350° oven (or whatever temperature the oven is set to while you’re cooking turkey, etc.) until heated through. Pour the rest of the stock over the stuffing about halfway through the baking time. Add additional stock if the stuffing seems too dry. Taste to correct the seasoning and garnish with chopped parsley.