Thursday, November 26, 2015
Happy Thanksgiving: The Immutability of the Menu
I’ve had a lot of change in my life. Confronted the bad, seized the good, walked away from indifferent and dull. Far from afraid of change, I am someone who embraces it—maybe even a little too much.
So it is interesting, even curious, that the Thanksgiving menu never, ever changes. Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July: all are reconsidered, reconfigured, revised, reinvented every year. But Thanksgiving’s only concession in thirty-five years has been to hold back on the number of dishes when the group is smaller—as it is this year. That means, with some regret, one less vegetable, and one less pie.
In our house, the most essential dish—after the turkey of course—is the Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling that has been on our Thanksgiving table since I was a child. My grandmother made it every year, then my mother, now me. We sometimes refer to it as stuffing, but it is never put in the turkey, but rather baked separately. A cross between stuffing and mashed potatoes, properly made it is moist, rich but fluffy, smooth but textured. Leftovers are prized, hot or cold.
Given its reliable presence this time of year, I was surprised to find that I have never provided a recipe for it in a Thanksgiving post. Most likely because it was decimated for picture-taking before I even thought of it. Or maybe because there really isn’t a recipe, in the sense of one written down. It’s something that is made largely be feel. Even so, that’s an oversight that I hereby correct. You likely have your own immutable menu, but if not, I do think this is worth a try if you like mashed potatoes or stuffing. And really, who doesn’t?
The Family Potato Filling
Other than the potatoes and bread, add the ingredients gradually (as indicated) to get the taste and texture you want. I always make this up to the point of baking the day ahead. Serves 12 or more.
5 lb russet potatoes
2 lb traditional good-quality white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm original
12-16 oz unsalted butter for sautéing bread
1 cup milk, approx., heated
1 large onion, medium dice
4-6 celery stalks, medium dice (be sure to string the celery first)
1-2 tea or more fresh dried thyme
3-4 T additional butter
Early on the day or the night before you make it, cut the crusts off the bread and lay out on a sheet pan to dry out a bit, turning occasionally; bring the crusts out to the birds immediately so you don’t eat them all dipped in soft butter (who does that??). Cut the bread into cubes, 4x4 and leave spread out to dry.
Peel and cut the potatoes into even chunks. Bring to a boil in a large pot of salted water and cook until tender, or they slip off an inserted knife.
While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the bread cubes. If you have them, use two large frying pans; melt 4 oz butter in each, add the bread in an even layer (do not crowd the pan), and cook, tossing occasionally until crisp and golden, adding butter as needed. You will need to do them in perhaps 4 batches; remove to a bowl as you cook them, sprinkling them lightly with salt, pepper, and thyme as you go, and set aside.
When the potatoes are done, drain them and place in your biggest bowl; the upside-down lid of a Tupperware cake keeper works well. Mash the potatoes, adding warm milk (start with ½ cup), salt, and pepper to achieve a smooth consistency. I prefer to use an old-fashioned potato masher or a ricer; if you use a mixer, be careful not to overbeat or they will be tough. There is so much butter in the bread that you don’t have to add any.
When the potatoes are smooth and still very warm, fold in the sautéed bread and about ¾ (to start) of the diced celery and onion, or about 1 cup each. Taste for texture, distribution of veggies, and seasoning; mixture will be very firm but should not be super stiff or dry—it should still feel creamy. Add a little more milk and additional salt, pepper, and thyme as needed; the thyme should be clearly present but not dominant.
Butter two baking dishes; if you distribute the filling among a large (say, a glass lasagna pan or a 3-qt soufflé dish) and a small (e.g., a 9” baker or 1 ½ qt gratin), you may be lucky enough to have one untouched for next day, and even defer heating it until you see if it is needed. Spread the mixture into the pans evenly and dot generously with butter. Cover with foil and refrigerate.
Remove from the refrigerator a good 4 or 5 hours ahead to bring to room temperature. Bake in a 375 F oven—you can put it in after your remove your turkey if you have a single oven—still covered with foil, for about 30 minutes (a deep dish takes longer to heat than a shallow one, so plan for that), or until hot in the center (I plunge in a finger to test). Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or so until browned and heaving. Serve in generous spoonsful with the turkey gravy.