Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday for cooking. As soon as the days begin to grow shorter, well before the leaves change and summer’s heat has eased into the cool of autumn, I start planning the big dinner in my head.
You might think there wouldn’t be that much planning to do, since wise cooks don’t tamper with tradition at Thanksgiving. It’s one time when being too clever can get you into big trouble, and like most families, mine has traditions that I dare not tamper with. Even so, change is often inevitable.
The big changes actually take very little planning, since they depend on the traditions that our guests bring with them. It’s the little things that require careful planning. A twist in the topping for the sweet potatoes, an orange and ginger scented cranberry compote alongside the usual cranberry relish – such things are safe only as long as the essentials remain untouched.
One of those essentials is the heady perfume of sage, bacon, and toasting pecans. For at least a century, those commingled aromas have been the essence of the holiday in the South, as important as the roasting turkey and baking sweet potatoes. If they’re perfuming the air (and I make sure they are), variations are cheerfully tolerated.
This year, they’ll go into the dressing. Condensed from a mélange of recipes from my own family, fellow Southern writer Jean Anderson, and a cookbook published in 1867 by Annabella Hill, it condenses the best of a Southern Thanksgiving into one dish.
Bacon and Pecan Stuffing or Dressing
Save some of the bacon drippings to rub into the turkey skin for extra crispiness and flavor.
Makes about 7 ½ cups, enough for a 12-pound turkey
4 cups (firmly packed) diced day-old firm home-style bread (crust and all)
4 cups day old skillet cornbread, crumbled
8 slices bacon, diced
1 cup chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium)
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup toasted and roughly broken pecans
½ cup minced parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons crumbled, dried sage
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons crumbled, dried thyme
About 1 to 1½ cups turkey broth, made from neck and giblets
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
2-3 tablespoons butter, cut into bits
Position racks in the upper and lower third of the oven and preheat to 225 degrees F. Spread the bread and cornbread on large, rimmed baking sheets and bake until almost dry. Meanwhile, sauté the bacon in large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until browned. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the drippings, add the onion and celery, and sauté, tossing, until golden but not browned, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Toss together the bread and pecans in large mixing bowl until mixed. Add the onion, celery, and herbs and moisten well with broth, but don’t make soggy. Season liberally with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, toss to mix, and if made ahead, cover and refrigerate. Let it sit at room temperature for thirty minutes before proceeding.
If using this to stuff the turkey, put it in the skillet in which onions cooked (or use 2 if you don’t have one large enough). Turn on the heat to medium heat and heat thoroughly, tossing. Spoon it loosely into the turkey while hot. Truss it as usual and roast the bird at once. Do not stuff it ahead and let it sit or refrigerate it.
If baking it separately as dressing, position a rack in the center of oven and preheat it to 350° F. (I put it in the oven when the turkey comes out, so that it bakes while the bird rests.) Lightly butter a 9” by 13” baking pan or dish that will hold all the dressing in a single 1-inch-deep layer. Pour in the dressing and pat flat. Dot the top with butter and bake until the center is set and the top golden brown, about 45 minutes.