You know how you hear about people taking recipes to their grave? My husband’s grandma (my grandma-in-law?) seriously did that with her Thanksgiving bread stuffing (dressing). It was the best stuffing in the whole wide world, and I consider myself a stuffing aficionado, as it’s tied with mashed potatoes for my favorite holiday food. It had a simple, comforting flavor and was toasted to perfection.
Try as we might, we never got Mary Ellen to give up the recipe. Without fail, she made it for us every year (even, sweetly, one year when she was too sick to eat Thanksgiving dinner herself). Knowing our time with her was getting shorter, we asked after the recipe for years, and she would only reply “well, I just soak the bread in milk, really.” That’s the only detail she ever gave up! That the bread was soaked in milk. I mean, I guess it’s better than no details. I thought that maybe she would write the recipe down, wrap it in a gift box and present it as a wedding present, but that didn’t happen.
Starting now, I’m making it my mission to try to recreate this recipe, even though I know it’ll never be as good as hers. One of my favorite blog posts ever was my Cherry Pie FAIL, because so many of you chimed in to help me crowdsource a solution. I’m hoping we can do that again here. Maybe your mother or grandmother made a similar recipe. Help me, won’t you? Let’s break it down:
- Mary Ellen’s Background – She was born in 1933, and lived in the Flint, Michigan area her entire life. She saved many recipes, most of them clippings from the newspaper or hand-transcribed from friends. She was active in church groups. My guess is that she picked up a stuffing recipe somewhere, and then adapted it through the years.
- Bread – Like most women of her generation, Mary Ellen was frugal to the max. We’re pretty sure she used the cheapest white bread she could find. For some reason, Jeff and I also thought there may have been some wheat bread mixed in, so I used half white, half wheat in my intial attempt. We now believe that some pieces of white bread were just more toasted than others, making it look wheat-y. So we’re back to 100% cheap white bread. I’m pretty sure she hand tore the pieces (leaving the crusts on) rather than cutting it, so I did that, too. I left it out overnight to dry out, but did not toast it before combining with other ingredients.
- Liquid – Like I said, we know she soaked the bread in milk. But was there also broth to add some chicken or turkey flavor? She never mentioned broth, so I used only milk in this attempt.
- Eggs – My mother-in-law says that Mary Ellen did NOT use eggs.
- Giblets – We never saw any giblet parts in her stuffing, so unless she chopped them into atom-sized particles and didn’t tell us about them, they weren’t in there.
- Veggies – All we could see in her stuffing was finely diced celery and white onion. She probably sauteed them first in some butter to soften. I was worried about adding too much of these veggies, but by the time everything was baked, I think I didn’t use enough.
- Herbs & Spices – Fresh herbs would not have been widely available when Mary Ellen started making this dish, so I knew dried herbs would be the way to go.
- Sage was the most prominent flavor in her stuffing. I used dried rubbed sage.
- Poultry seasoning – I picked up a bottle of this, because for some reason, I assumed that poultry seasoning included some chicken flavor or something. Turns out that poultry seasoning is just a mixture of thyme, [more] sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper and nutmeg. I added a little of this to the mix.
- Onion powder & garlic powder – This was my stab at figuring out the secret ingredient (other than love) that Mary Ellen used. After tasting it with these additions, I don’t think either of these were in her original version.
Using the educated guesses I made above, along with reader comments and e-mails over the last few years, I’ve constructed and updated the recipe you see below. Does your family have a stuffing recipe similar to Mary Ellen’s? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Grandma Mary Ellen's Stuffing
- 6 cups cubed white bread
- 1 bag (12 ounces) unseasoned cubed stuffing
- 1-1/4 cups whole milk
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, divided
- 1 large white onion, finely chopped
- 1-1/2 cups finely chopped celery
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 1-1/2 teaspoons dried sage
- 1-1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place cubed white bread on rimmed baking pan. Transfer to oven and bake 12 to 15 minutes or until crisp. Set toasted bread aside; leave oven on at 350 degrees F.
- Meanwhile, place cubed stuffing and milk in large bowl; toss to combine.
- Place chicken stock in medium pot and cook over high heat until reduced to 1-1/2 cups.
- Grease large baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter. Place remaining 11 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and garlic; season with salt and pepper. Cook 5 to 7 minutes or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add sage, poultry seasoning and sugar; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Add toasted white bread, reduced stock, onion mixture, and parsley to bowl with cubed stuffing and milk. Toss until well combined. Transfer to prepared baking dish.
- Transfer to oven and bake 45 minutes or until golden brown.
DISCLAIMER: This recipe is a "work in progress." See above.