This stuffing is not just my very own favorite, it was the hit of the day when I was teaching a Thanksgiving class to a group of Japanese women for the CBS “This Morning” show. Although most recipes recommend the use of stale bread for stuffing, I’ve never agreed with this concept. Stale bread just tastes stale, so instead I cut a variety of fresh breads into cubes and dry them in the oven to obtain the proper consistency. The bread cubes are then combined with loads of sautéed vegetables and chestnuts, selected herbs and even sausage and cranberries, if you like. If you’re concerned about the generous amount of butter, see my reduced-fat variation. But if you’re celebrating an annual holiday, to enjoy the stuffing’s fullest flavor, I would leave it as it stands. Naturally, this stuffing is also wonderful baked inside a turkey.
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Preheat the oven to 350°F. Toast bread cubes in batches on a shallow baking sheet in a single layer until light golden, about 15 minutes. (If using dark baking sheets, the bread will toast faster.) Turn off oven and let the cubes sit there until dry, 20 to 30 minutes. Then transfer them into an 8-quart mixing bowl or a large pot.
Clean fresh mushrooms; trim stems of button mushrooms and remove stems from shiitakes. Then slice thinly. If using dried mushrooms, reconstitute them as directed in my book; strain and reserve 1/2 cup soaking liquid.
Heat an 8- to 10-inch skillet over medium heat and, when hot, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. When hot and bubbling, stir in diced chestnuts or pecans and sauté, stirring constantly until chestnuts are golden brown and toasted, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to a plate and set aside.
Heat a 10-to 12-inch deep-sided skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and, when oil is hot, add sausage, stirring to break up the meat using a fork or wooden spatula. Fry sausage until the exterior becomes brown but the inside is still pink. Add 1/2 cup of the chicken stock to sausage and simmer until no longer pink and the stock is just about absorbed. Pour sausage into the bowl with bread cubes.
Wipe out the interior of the skillet and return to medium heat. Melt 1 stick of the butter and, when hot and bubbling, stir in chopped onions, celery and garlic. Reduce heat and cook gently until vegetables are softened and very fragrant, about 10 minutes. Raise heat, stir in chopped red pepper and sliced mushrooms. (If using reconstituted dried mushrooms, add them when red peppers are almost tender.) Cook vegetables until all are tender, about 5 minutes more. Just as they finish cooking, stir in parsley, thyme, oregano and sage. Heat for just a few seconds to release the flavor of the herbs. Remove from heat and pour vegetable-herb mixture into the bowl with the bread cubes and cooked sausage. Then add chopped cranberries, if using, and chestnuts.
In a small saucepan, heat only 1 cup of the remaining stock (or 1/2 cup reserved mushroom liquid and 1/2 cup stock) with the remaining 5 tablespoons butter until stock is hot and butter is melted. Add to the stuffing, along with eggs. Fold all ingredients together to combine thoroughly. If you desire a moister stuffing, add the remaining 1/2 cup of stock. Season to taste with coarse salt and lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper -- grind until it hurts and then give it 2 more grinds!
Butter the interior of an 8-quart casserole dish and also butter the interior of the lid or the shiny side of a sheet of aluminum foil. Spoon stuffing mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the top with a little more coarse salt and grind on a bit more pepper; when cool, cover the dish. (If planning to stuff a turkey, see directions following this recipe.)
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Bake the covered stuffing for 45 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until stuffing is piping hot throughout and the top is crusty and golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve hot from the casserole at the table.
To reduce the overall saturated-fat content of the stuffing, omit butter when sautéing vegetables and stir the chopped vegetables into 1/4 cup hot extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil; when they are just beginning to soften, add 1/4 cup additional chicken stock and simmer until tender. You can also omit the 5 tablespoons of butter when assembling the stuffing or reduce to 1 or 2 tablespoons. Finally, you can use 1 whole egg and 3 extra-large egg whites and adjust the amount of stock to achieve correct consistency. If making these variations, I suggest using some extra dried mushrooms and including at least 1/2 cup of the strained reconstituting liquid. This will heighten the overall flavor of the stuffing so you'll be less likely to miss the richness of the butter. No need to reduce the amount of fresh mushrooms.
The stuffing can be assembled totally 1 day ahead, cooled, covered and refrigerated. Bring close to room temperature before baking or adjust baking time to achieve the desired results. Do not stuff a turkey until just before roasting.