I have a confession to make: I don’t love Thanksgiving. Or at least not until lately.
I adored it when I was a little girl. Thanksgiving meant the hubbub of aunts and uncles and cousins squeezed into my grandmother’s little house. Milly’s 1940s kitchen--bright red cupboards and a chocolate brown Frigidaire humming away in the corner--was home to a spectacular display of Middle-American culinary traditions. Canned yams covered with heaping spoonfuls of brown sugar and melty marshmallows. Green bean casserole with a golden crown of crispy onions. A log of cranberry jam still bearing the indentations of the can it came in. Pumpkin pie topped with ethereal clouds of Cool-Whip. In the center of it all, was a gleaming turkey my grandfather would artfully slice, the whir of the electric carver summoning everyone to the table.
But the star of the show was my grandmother’s oyster stuffing. I’m not sure how this coastal dish entered her repertoire; she grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. But she discovered it somewhere along the line and made it her signature holiday dish. For the seafood-averse, there was Stove-Top. For the more adventurous among us, there was oyster stuffing. It was studded with celery and chopped oysters and capped with a golden, buttery crust of saltine crackers. It was delicious.
That stuffing and the chorus of laughter and shouting tumbling out of Milly’s kitchen were Thanksgiving to me.
When I got older, Thanksgiving and I went our separate ways. My grandma passed away and the holiday wasn’t the same somehow. I moved to Paris then Brussels then Seattle and stopped making the trek back to the Midwest for the holidays. Milly was the linchpin for our family gatherings; without her big laugh and generous table, Thanksgiving wasn’t the joyous family celebration of my childhood.
But my feelings about the holiday have been changing of late. Maybe because I'm married now. Maybe because I feel settled and happy. Or maybe because I am realizing more and more that sharing a meal with the people you love is one of the finest things there is.
This stuffing is my ode to Thanksgiving. I made it using some of my favorite fall ingredients: caramelized Brussels sprouts, smoky bacon, and earthy-sweet chestnuts. There’s fresh sage, thyme and celery to ensure it has the traditional stuffing flavor Thanksgiving purists are looking for. The currants bring a burst of sweetness that balances the earthy flavors. And the egg whisked into the stock yields a silky texture under the golden-brown crust.
This savory-sweet stuffing feels very me. And the smell that filled my house while it was baking pulled me back in time to Milly’s little red kitchen and the love she put into cooking for all of us.
I think I’ve found my signature holiday dish.
Brussels Sprout Stuffing with Bacon and Chestnuts
- 8 cups country bread, cut into ½- to ¾-inch cubes (I used half of a loaf that weighed 1 ½ lbs.)
- 3 tablespoons currants
- ½ lb. peeled chestnuts (from about ¾ lb. unpeeled), about 1 ½ cups
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- 2 springs fresh thyme
- 12 oz. Brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved (yields about 3 cups)
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 oz. bacon, cut into strips (about 6 slices)
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 4 stalks celery, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon chopped sage
- 1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
- 3 cups chicken or turkey stock, preferably homemade, divided
- 2 large eggs
Store-bought peeled and cooked chestnuts work well in this recipe, but they aren’t quite as sweet and delicious as fresh. Click here for instructions on peeling fresh chestnuts.
I used an 8 x 12-inch baking dish. For more golden crust and less fluffy stuffing underneath, use a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or larger. You can even bake it in a sheet pan if you are crazy about the crispy top.
For a vegetarian version: replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock and leave out the bacon. Add two tablespoons of butter or olive oil for sauteing the onion, celery and sage.
For a dairy-free version: replace the butter with olive oil and the milk with either unsweetened nut milk, additional stock or water.
For a gluten-free version: replace the bread with either gluten-free bread or 6 cups of cooked and cooled quinoa.
Preheat your oven to 425 with one rack in the bottom of the oven and one in the middle. Butter a baking dish and a piece of foil large enough to cover it and set both aside.
Spread the cubed bread out on a rimmed sheet pan and cook, stirring once or twice, until completely dry, 10-15 minutes. Transfer the bread to a large mixing bowl along with the currants and set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat the chestnuts with the milk, a pinch of salt, a few grindings of black pepper and the thyme. Bring to a bare simmer and cook, covered, stirring occasionally until the chestnuts are very tender but not falling apart, about 40 minutes. If your chestnuts soak up a lot of the milk, add a bit more milk or water. If you are using store-bought, pre-cooked chestnuts, you will need to reduce the cook time. Drain the chestnuts, reserving the milk they were cooked in. When the chestnuts have cooled a bit, roughly chop them and add them to the bowl with the bread.
Bring a medium saucepan of generously salted water to the boil. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook until just tender, 5- 7 minutes. Drain well and transfer to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Sprinkle the Brussels sprouts with salt, drizzle with the olive oil and toss to coat. Roast on the bottom rack of the oven until soft and the edges are golden brown, about 25 minutes. Add the sprouts to the bowl with the bread and reduce the oven temperature to 350.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the bowl with the bread. Add the onion, celery and sage to the pan with the rendered bacon fat. Season with a generous pinch salt and pepper and saute until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the sautéd vegetables to the bowl with the bread. Deglaze the pan with the bourbon. Scrape up any brown bits from the pan and add to the bowl with the bread and sautéd vegetables.
In a medium bowl, combine the cooled milk from the chestnuts, 2 cups of the stock, the eggs, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Whisk to combine.
Pour the stock and egg mixture over the bread mixture and stir gently to combine. Let the stuffing rest for a few minutes then check to see if the bread looks dry. If so, add more stock, ¼ cup at a time (you may not use it all), until the bread is very moist; you will want to see the stock mixture pooling in the bottom of the bowl. Transfer the stuffing to your prepared baking dish. Bake on the middle rack, covered with buttered foil for 30 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 425, remove the foil and continue to cook until the top of the stuffing is golden brown, about 15 minutes longer. Rest for 10-20 minutes before serving.
Makes 6-8 servings