Heirloom recipes, tattered and splattered notes scrawled in cookbooks, on index cards, and handwritten on scraps of paper are gifts from our individual pasts as well as time capsules for us collectively. Holiday dinners celebrated around the world, of all traditions and faiths, are windows into our kitchens, our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens, and all the cooks who went before them.
My family’s chestnut and sausage stuffing recipe has been on our Thanksgiving table since before I was born. My grandfather was the head tennis pro at a club for over 30 years. The chef at the Club made this dressing for their Thanksgiving dinners and at some point shared the recipe with my mother. As a child I remember going to the Club and visiting “Chef” in the hot humid kitchen, delicious smells enveloping me while the sounds of banging pots and pans filled the air. My little girl self recalls the Chef as a big man with a Scandinavian accent, always gifting me with an ice-cream cone- my choice of any flavor, before heading back to the tennis courts with Pop-Pop.
This is Chef’s own recipe; I am forever grateful that he shared it with my mother, and though he couldn’t have known it at the time, he now shares it with me. My childhood is full of taste memories, and every Thanksgiving, as I step into the kitchen with my own children to help, this delicious stuffing serves as a direct connection to not only my past, but theirs, the fourth generation to have it on their table each November.
The stuffing is so much easier to make these days. I can recall many Wednesdays before Thanksgiving filled with burnt fingers as my mom spent what seemed like hours cutting x’s into fresh chestnuts, boiling and peeling them, only to discover they were rotten. Happily that has not happened to me, as cooked and shelled chestnuts are now readily available in jars! The stuffing is made the day before Thanksgiving, which frees up some oven space on Thursday, and makes you feel like you’ve got a head start on your preparations. It also smells incredible! As soon as the sausage, followed by the onions and celery hit the sauté pan, you are clearly announcing to the world- or at least your household, that delicious things are in store.
*Fun Fact: Dressing vs Stuffing? Dressing and stuffing are one in the same, only dressing does NOT get stuffed into the bird. It is cooked separately in a casserole, while stuffing does go into the bird. However, in the American South, most everyone calls it dressing whether it is cooked inside or outside the bird. This recipe allows for both. The dressing is cooked the day before, and on Thursday you can take a portion of it and stuff the bird. Or, you can do as I do, and use drippings from the turkey or stock to moisten the dressing and then reheat it in the oven before serving.
Chestnut and Sausage Stuffing
4 stalks celery, cut fine
3 medium onions, diced
2 lbs sausage
1½ lbs chestnuts (cooked and shelled)
2 lbs day old bread, cubed
2 cups milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning* to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Fry sausage until golden brown. Add celery and onion and cook 5 minutes. Soak bread in milk until moist, then squeeze out any excess. Add to the sausage mixture. Add 2 slightly beaten eggs, melted butter, and season to taste with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper.
Transfer to a deep casserole dish and bake for 1 hour. Let cool and refrigerate until next day.
Before reheating or stuffing the turkey, stir in 1½ lbs fresh chestnuts, roughly chopped.
*To make homemade poultry seasoning: combine 1 teaspoon each crumbled dried rosemary, crumbled dried sage, dried thyme, dried marjoram, and celery salt, with 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Crush together in mortar and pestle, mini food processor, or spice grinder (poultry seasoning recipe from Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers).
**Another variation would be to use chopped fresh herbs like parsley, sage, and thyme in place of the dried poultry seasoning blend.