Monday, November 22, 2021

My Favorite Holiday Stuffing/Dressing with Sausage and Cheese OR Everything I Learned About Stuffing in the Last 40 Years

(I was really hoping to make this recipe my first video . . . Oh, well. It's a bit long, but it has lots of tips if you are nervous about making stuffing/dressing. Sorry for the lack of photographs. My goal is to begin videos of all my recipes by Jan, 2022.)


First, let me be clear on this! Nothing could be more sacred than the preparation of stuffing for the holidays. It is the golden sacrament of Thanksgiving and Christmas if any kind of bird is served.  It is our national communion. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to change or alter your family's usual stuffing unless you have been specifically asked or you have actually tested and tasted the newer one you plan to spring on them. Including this.


Here is my "old" stuffing. Don't get me wrong, it's 
to die for. It looks just like my mom's. But not as good as this recipe.


This recipe is the result of trying a bit of this and a bit of that over the years. It relies heavily on my family favorite, so the base has lots of butter, onion, celery and sausage.

However, I have made several major deviations. The first is the size of the bread. Through the years, bags of stuffing have devolved into almost stale bread crumbs. Crumbs! Chips! That creates a mushy stuffing with little to no texture or structure--and that's what I want. To solve the problem, I use three sizes of bread, so everyone is still able to sneak to the dish of stuffing to steal that nice browned "chunk" we love to pop into our mouth.

Second, let's face it. As a country, we all love Stove Top Stuffing. The flavor is unbeatable. So I add a box. In fact, regardless of your stuffing recipe, you should, too! It's a game changer your entire table will appreciate. 

Stove Top will have the smallest pieces of bread. I don't care. It is flavor-consecrated and that is what we want. Next, like my mom, I use Pepperidge Farm Seasoned Bread CUBES. Sometimes, they are not easy to find, so shop early. They provide even more flavor. Make sure the package says "CUBES" otherwise you will get the bread "chips." And make sure they are seasoned.

Third, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, I begin to save the end bits of artisan bread I usually have on hand. I tear them into rough, non-geometrical "one-inch-ish" non-geometrical chunks and just throw them into a bag. It is mostly white bread, but sometimes it has rye and whole wheat, too. 

Last, I always throw in a good handful of shaved Parmesan. You could also use a Granno Padano or Romano cheese. It makes a wonderful addition. I still use Jimmy Dean's sage breakfast sausage like my mother  ... but sometimes I sin and use a mild Italian sausage. Whatever you choose, do add the cheese!

Personally, I neither like nor appreciate a stuffing that resembles a fruit cake. I do not want apples, or cranberries, dried fruits, figs or nuts. Those items should be reserved for sides. Do not pollute the Holy Stuffing which you want pure and blessed by all who worship and partake.

I live in the South. Here, it is all about cornbread stuffing. I find it mushy. But that is all one hears .... cornbread stuffing this and cornbread stuffing that ....  "Well, Gary," I am often asked, "What kind of stuffing do you make?" Most have no idea about sausage stuffing. So, one day, I brought a pan to work and I had the bakery/deli bake it up fresh.

OMG!

It was more than a hit. My boss turned to me after shoving another forkful into his mouth. "This is the stuffing I have always dreamed about!" He said. "Is there cheese in here?" Then he wagged his finger in front of me . . . "And don't you ever tell my wife I said that."

Enough said .... 

The trickiest part of stuffing, I think, is knowing how much liquid to add. I go by two rules. One: If you put the stuffing in the oven wet, it will come out wet. Put it in dry, it will come out dry. Now here is why you want some large bread pieces. After mixing in the liquids, pick up a random large bread piece. Squeeze it a bit. It should not really be mushy--just spongy with some give-and-take. Perfect.

And don't be in a hurry. Let the bread mixture sit so it can absorb gently and slowly.

I have always advised . . . DO NOT USE CANNED chicken stock or bullion for stuffing. Buy a cheap pack of turkey necks or chicken wings and simmer in a pan with water, celery, onions, carrots and some fresh herbs. In fact, if you fry your turkey (the best ever), you should still do this so your house has the aroma of Turkey Church. If you have an Instant Pot, it is easy and quick to make tons of broth ahead of time and freeze in two or four-cup measures. 

Eggs? I buy medium eggs for this. For a long time, I simply never used them. But, through the years, I found their addition added a bit of "pudding-ness" and lift to the stuffing. I think small or medium eggs seem to have a more equal ratio of yolk to white and are easier to work with. 

Use quality butter, such as Plugra. I use salted. It's your call.

I begin with dried bread. That is the base from which you need to work. You will want a  total of 2 pounds dried bread (32 ounces), so go from there. Just so you know, my original recipe was 40 ounces or 2.5 pounds of bread. This recipe goes by weight, not volume, since it almost impossible to determine an exact, uniform volume for dried bread since people will cut it differently. One person's "cup" will not be similar to another's measurements. 


I once had a store where the bakery cut their own
bread by hand for great stuffing croutons. 
That's not happening anymore ....

  • 1 box Stove Top Stuffing (6 ounces) I use chicken-flavored.
  • 1 bag Pepperidge Farm CUBED Herb Stuffing (12 ounces)
  • 12-14 ounces bread torn into large random pieces and dried
  • 1/2 cup fresh shaved Parmesan or similar (a good handful)
  • 2 garlic cloves, pressed 
  • 1 to 1.5 sticks butter (not margarine)
  • 1 lb. sage breakfast sausage (Jimmy Dean) or mild Italian, casings removed
  • 12 ounces chopped onion (about one large), yellow or white, finely diced
  • 12 ounces chopped celery (about 4-5 ribs) finely diced
  • 2 heaping tablespoons fresh-minced parsley
  • 2 tablespoons fine-minced fresh sage leaves OR 2 teaspoons, dried (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried leaves, slightly crushed (optional)
  • Powdered seasoning of your choice such as Bell's (highly recommended) poultry seasoning of your choice, or summer savory (optional)
  • 4 cups poultry stock, cooled or room temperature if homemade
  • 2-3 medium/small eggs
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 fahrenheit degrees

Lightly grease your casserole dish or dishes. Sometimes I use bacon grease. You want the stuffing to be about 1.5-2 inches high in whatever sized dishes you use. This will easily give you a 13x9 pan of stuffing plus some extra. 

In the largest mixing bowl you own, dump all of your dried breads, parsley, and cheese. Lightly mix with your fingers to combine.

Melt butter in a large frying pan. Add your diced celery and onions. About halfway, add garlic and, if using, fresh sage.  Cook on medium just until vegetables are soft and translucent. Transfer to bowl.

In the same pan, add your sausage meat, breaking up clumps as you cook. After it loses its pink, add to bowl, grease and all. In the same pan, add about 2 cups of your stock to warm it up and to deglaze the pan.

Put remaining 2 cups of cold stock into a jug or small bowl. Add eggs and beat until well combined. Add to stuffing bowl and toss with your hands, fingers. Continue to add hot stock from pan until desired consistency is reached. If you run out of stock, it is okay to use water. Sometimes my mother used warm milk. If you have leftover stock, use for gravy. Be sure all the bread has absorbed the liquid and none have dry centers.

Taste for seasonings, including salt and pepper. Pepper is often underused in stuffing.

Carefully arrange stuffing mix in your casserole dish(es). Before baking, I always sprinkle with just a bit of dried, crushed thyme flakes. Cover with foil. Bake until the center registers about 150-160, about 45-50 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 15-30 minutes longer or until the top is golden and crisp. Keep an eye on it.

To Do Ahead: Bake until stuffing reaches 160. Remove from oven. Uncover to cool. Then re-cover and place in refrigerator. When ready to bake, uncover and bake until top is browned and warmed through. 

If you half this recipe, still use the full box of Stove Top and then 8 ounces each of the Pepperidge Farm and homemade bread chunks.






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Thursday, July 1, 2021

Better Pancakes Made from a Packaged Mix


 

It isn't officially summer until I make my first blueberry pancakes. It's a kind of ceremony where I pay homage to the nostalgic ritual of summer vacations of the1950s-1960s when my family and a zillion others traveled the newly-built expressways. We departed from Indiana to Long Island, New York to visit the paternal side of the family. Oh, what excitement and fun! And all along the way Howard Johnson's were there to greet us with ice cream and breakfasts of blueberry pancakes washed down with hot chocolate and afternoon platters of hamburgers or hot dogs with french fries.

Those places were always busy and for young children they were fraught with amusement and exploring. Like the neighborhoods of that incredible era, every Howard Johnson was packed with children. Each one had a gift shop unique to its geographical terrain. And lots of exciting maps. And souvenirs marketed for children. It was like Christmas! 

They were simpler times, back then, for sure. Everyone was on their best behavior--unless my dad made a wrong turn, got lost, and had to turn around. Once, he broke his sunglasses in two and threw them out the car window. Still, how exciting was that? It is now an indelible part of our family history.

 
At its peak, Howard Johnson's had more than 1,000 locations across the country that outsold McDonald's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined! It was one of the first "chains" to use unique architecture-inspired branding. It relied on a traditional Early-American Georgian style. The artsy orange roof and turquoise spire beckoned and welcomed weary-hungry travelers.


Here's something you may not have known about the ubiquitous Howard Johnson restaurant/hotel chain back then. Famed chef Jacques Pepin turned down a presidential request to be head chef at the White House under the Kennedy administration. Instead, he chose the top position at Howard Johnson to develop an American menu. And what an incredible job he did! Today, blueberry pancakes are as American as apple pie. And fried clams! Indeed, the iconic Howard Johnson logo is a chef offering a stack of pancakes to a small boy and his dog.

It's fun to make pancakes from scratch, and pretty easy. But it is even easier to buy a premixed box and go from there. I used to buy Aunt Jemima, but now that it has gone all "woke" and scrubbed her beautiful face from the box, I have moved on. My regret is that I do not buy Land O'Lakes Butter so I can boycott it, too, for scrubbing the image of that beautiful Native American. ("C'mon, man!") I use President brand from France for eating and Plugra brand for cooking.

Really, there are dozens of mixes from which to choose. Some are quite gourmet with a price to match. My only complaint from many is the predominant phony taste of artificial vanilla. Even Aunt Jemima has succumbed. They taste like pancakes from McDonald's.

Anyway, I picked up a box of "Krustease" buttermilk pancake mix. It was dirt cheap! I didn't care for the name because it reminds me of Krusty the clown from The Simpsons. But it has a great history going back to the Depression. A one-pound box was only around two bucks and what drew me were the easy directions and the ability to make as few as I wanted, not as many as I would like.

I have fooled around with pancake and waffle mixes before. It is so easy to add flavorings that ramp things up. 

For my first batch, I made as directed. They were quite good. Fluffy, light and absent of any phony vanilla taste, and they did a great job of sopping up the maple syrup. Real maple syrup, thank you very much.

For the next batch, I added a bit of vanilla extract and just a bit of almond flavoring. Kaboom! With maple syrup, it was wonderful combination.

But then I upped it. I add the blueberries and I was in pancake heaven! There is no going back! They were sublime and absolutely delicious with each little bit of blueberry explosion. Later, I added some lemon zest. Delicious. Complex yet so simple.

I urge you to give them a try and try your own combination of extracts. You could do citrus with lemon and orange extracts. You could go all Canadian with a bit of rum and maple and butter flavoring. 

 

Makes about 7 nice-sized pancakes:

  • 1 cup Krusteaze Buttermilk Complete Pancake Mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla and almond extract combined (1/16 each)
  • 2/3 cup water
  • a few scratches of fresh lemon zest (optional, but worth it!)

Add dry mix to a small bowl. Add extracts to a 1/3-cup measure. Fill with water, add to mix. Add the other 1/3 cup of water. Stir just to dissolve everything. You want lumps! Add about a handful of fresh blueberries--about 24. Allow to sit as you heat your pan.

Heat a non-stick skillet. Add a bit of oil of your choice (I use bacon grease) and, when melted, swirl around with a bit of paper towel. You don't need much. Pour in about 1/4 cup or less of your batter. If you are hesitant about flipping pancakes, do not crowd the pan.

Now, here's the secret to know when to flip. Yes, the edges will get bubbly. But that is not the time. Look at the wet "sheen" on the top of the pancake. Do not flip until that sheen dulls and becomes opaque. Than, and only then, flip. Why? When the top dulls, most of the moisture has evaporated from the pancake and it is less likely to fall apart.


If desired, keep warm on rack placed on top of cookie sheet at about 200 F. But don't keep in there too long or they will dry out.

Spread with non-woke butter. My method is to cut them all up and then drizzle with maple syrup so all the pieces are coated. 

Have a great vacation and order a great breakfast!




 

 





Wednesday, January 27, 2021

French Apple Cake with Lemon Topping

A no-nonsense pure apple flavor with a clean, lemony finish. 
 

So I made this cake on a Monday. I brought most of it to work on Tuesday. When I woke on Wednesday,  I was consumed with baker's remorse. I wanted more!


This recipe is from Joel over at Recipe30 on You Tube. After researching dozens of French apple cakes, I settled on his because I was intrigued by the unique lemon topping. Neither it, nor the cake, disappointed.

Recipes are like people. I am drawn to the quirky. The unusual. The different mix of ingredients. Usually, I am surprised and happy. This was no exception.

Keep your apples in chunks--not slices. As with any oil-based cake, make sure your oil is fresh, not old. It should have a neutral scent. Oil-based cakes are almost always moist opposed to butter-based cakes. Why? Oil has no water. Butter does and it evaporates as it bakes.

One aspect I love about European apple recipes is that they often do not call for cinnamon or nutmeg; instead, they rely on the quality and taste of the apple itself to take center stage. Here, I used two Honey Crisp and one Golden Delicious. Be sure they are firm, not soft.

When I first journeyed to Europe as a youth, I loved all the apple recipes. I was surprised they were not over-scented with cinnamon. Usually, they had mild flavors, such as honey and almond. Boy, Amsterdam had some of the best apple desserts I ever tasted. 

 

My only deviation from the recipe was to add a bit of additional flavor that complemented the lemon topping: vanilla, rum, almond. Use drops, not measured spoonfuls. Mix and taste as you go. Don't get carried away. Less is more.

This is a very moist cake. Don't bother sifting with confectioner's sugar unless it is at the very last minute before serving, otherwise it will just dissolve. Do not insult this cake with ice cream. Real, fresh, whipped cream? Good choice. But if you really want to gild the lily, I would suggest a Sauce Anglaise. Spectacular and over the top!

I did weigh my ingredients as opposed to measuring. You should, too!

 

 BATTER:

  • 13 ounces apple chunks (3.5-4.0 cups)
  • 150 grams all purpose flour (1 cup)
  • 130 grams white sugar (2/3 cup)
  • 12 grams baking powder (1 tablespoon)
  • 60 grams oil (1/3 cup)
  • 100 grams milk (a little less than one cup)
  • pinch or two of table salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract and then 3-5 drops each rum extract and almond extract

TOPPING:

  • 1 whole egg
  • 80g melted butter (4 tablespoons) a bit on the cool side
  • 100g sugar (about 1/2 cup
  • Zest of one medium lemon
  •  

Butter and flour a round 9-inch baking pan or dish. Have ingredients at room temperature.

Peel apples. Slice in half. Remove seeds and stem center. Slice each half into fourths. Then dice each wedge cross-wise into three chunks. Reserve.

Pre-heat oven to 340 degrees F. (170C)

In a medium mixing bowl, add the dry cake ingredients. Blend. Now add the 2 eggs, oil, milk and, using a whisk, stir just until smooth and no lumps remain. Add your flavorings drip by drip, tasting as you go.

Pour into your buttered pan/dish.

Tumble apple chunks evenly over the batter.

Bake for 30 minutes.


Make the topping:

Measure the sugar into a small bowl. Add the lemon zest. Using your fingers, incorporate into the sugar.

Beat in the melted butter until incorporated and cool. Add the egg. Beat with a whisk until well combined.

After 30 minutes, remove cake from oven. Using a toothpick or wooden skewer, insert into center of cake. Removed, it should be dry without any batter. This is important since the topping is wet and you want the base well baked to support it. If it is not, bake a bit longer until done.

When cake is baked in the center, carefully distribute the lemon custard over the top extending to edges of the pan. 

Re-insert into the oven and bake for an additional 12 minutes.

Remove cake from oven and allow to sit on a wire rack for a good 10-15 minutes. 

Run a knife around the edge to loosen. Place a wire rack on top of cake and flip to release from the pan.

Using another wire rack, re-flip right side up. Allow to cool before placing on your serving dish. Slice into diagonals. 


Here is the link to the original recipe and Joel's great website:

http://www.recipe30.com/french-apple-cake.html/





 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 



 






Friday, December 4, 2020

Ham and Beans

I grew up in northwest Indiana, a stone's throw from Chicago. It was the best of both worlds, small-town rural suburbia and big city highlights.

 


It was not until I began to teach in a more central part of the state that I discovered "Hoosier" and Hoosier menus. Ham and beans was one such cuisine. It was often served in the school cafeteria with a piece of cornbread or a yeast roll. It was delicious.

It is stick-to-your ribs comfort food at its best. Warm and starchy. Redolent with smoky ham flavor. It uses the most simple of ingredients one usually has on hand. Sometimes I make a cheat version and just use canned seasoned butter beans and throw in some chopped ham.

But it's fun to play with different raw beans and soak them overnight until they puff up.

My ham preference, if I can find them, is smoked whole ham shanks. It has been several years since I found any grocery store that stocked them. Instead, I now use smoked ham hocks which are more available. They carry a ton of flavor, but not much meat, so I buy a small ham steak that I chop up to add later.

This is basically a bean soup but with the "soupy" part. 

  • 16 - 20 oz. dried white beans (Navy, Northern, etc)
  • 2  smoked ham hocks
  • 1 onion, halved
  • 1-2 whole cloves
  • 2 carrots, sliced and diced
  • 2 celery ribs, sliced and diced
  • 1 medium garlic clove, peeled, smashed finely diced or pressed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Tabasco to taste
  • Worcestershire sauce to taste
  • 1 small ham steak (or a thick slice of deli ham)
  • Smoked paprika (optional)

Soak the beans: The day or night before, go over your dried beans and remove any "stones" or odd-looking beans. Place them in a colander. Now place the colander inside a large bowl. Fill with cold water until the beans are covered. Change the water several times. The beans will almost double in size.

I like to wash my ham hocks. I give them a good rinse under hot water. Then I place then in a sieve and slowly pour boiling water over them. Why? Well, they're just gross looking. 

Make the stock: Place washed hocks in a pan. Cut the onion in half and stud with one or two whole cloves. Add to pan. Fill pan with water just until it covers everything. Sometimes, I throw in a can of chicken stock. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a good hour or so. Remove the hocks and allow to cool. Discard onion. Strain the stock.

Now add your beans to the pot. Slice and dice the other half of onion. Add carrots and celery. Mix. Remove meat from the hocks. Cut up. Cut up the ham slice. Add meat to the pot. Bring to just a boil. Remove any scum that floats to the top. Reduce heat and simmer for 1-2 hours.

After about an hour, give the ham and beans a taste. I like to add a few shakes of Tabasco Sauce and 1-2 teaspoons of Worcestershire. If they are not "smoky" enough, give a few shakes of smoked paprika.

If you need to add more liquid, add a bit of water or canned chicken stock. 

Towards the end of cooking, note their consistency. If you like them thick, mash some against the side of the pan. Or add one tablespoon of soft butter to one tablespoon all-purpose flour. Mix well and drop by teaspoonfuls into the stew. Cover and simmer until thickened.

Traditionally, ham and beans is served with cornbread and a bit of diced onion on the top for garnish.


This is not my photo, but it shows the consistency you are looking for: