My favorite stuffing, from Brother Timothy
Friday, November 19, 2010; 6:17 PM
My mother and I live 1,500 miles apart, but I'm willing to bet money on what she's doing today. She's sitting at her kitchen table in Oklahoma City, making a grocery list that includes the words "slivered almonds, pork sausage, chicken livers, spinach and Parmesan," and when she's finished with that, she's going to pick up the phone and call the bakery to reserve two loaves of English muffin bread. She's doing her warm-up exercises, getting ready for Thursday, when she will make Brother Timothy's Stuffing, the undisputed favorite at my family's holiday table.
It's hard to say exactly how long we've been eating Brother Timothy's, as we call it, but the recipe first entered our family 25 years ago, in 1985, when it appeared in a cookbook called "California Fresh," published by the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay. Featuring a glowing foreword by the literary legend M.F.K. Fisher, it has to be the classiest Junior League cookbook ever printed. My mother's identical-twin sister, who lives in the Bay Area, bought copies for herself and my mother for their 39th birthday, on Nov. 22 of that year.
I can't be sure that my mother found the recipe in time to make it that Thanksgiving, but she definitely was making it two years later, by late 1987. My father had bought a camcorder, and he recorded our Christmas festivities on tape. About halfway through the meandering, 30-minute film, he winds up in the dining room on Christmas evening. He pans across the buffet table and then awkwardly interviews my reluctant mother and aunt about what they've made. There's turkey and corn pudding and, what do you know, Brother Timothy's Stuffing! It was our family's first and only home video, but it's a keeper. In the next scene, my father assembles the rest of the family and asks each of us what we've spent the day doing. My cousin Katie, then 8 years old, with a voice like a mouse's squeak, proudly announces that she has been sneaking tastes of "eggnog with booze in it."
Maybe it's fitting, then, that our family's stuffing was created by a pioneer of the American wine and spirits industry, the late Brother Timothy of the Christian Brothers of Napa, Calif. His winemaking career spanned more than 50 years, during which time Christian Brothers was one of the leading brands of domestic table wines and brandy. Apparently, Brother Timothy was also a fine cook.
"Although he is most knowledgeable about wines," the authors of "California Fresh" explain, "he also enjoys experimenting with cooking and providing suggestions for the Christian Brothers' kitchen." If his stuffing is any indication, the Brothers must have eaten very well in his day.
I've never seen another stuffing recipe quite like his. Many stuffings are based on a simple concept: bread cubes dressed up with aromatics and herbs. But in Brother Timothy's vision, the bread is almost secondary. His stuffing is all about sausage, toasted almonds, chicken livers, winter greens and Parmesan cheese, bound up with butter and broth and brandy. Sure, there's bread in there, but it's just one member of the team. Assembled differently, the ingredients of Brother Timothy's stuffing could make a terrific, if messy, sandwich, but put together in a casserole dish, the result is epic. Especially with a little giblet gravy on top.
In the 20-something years that my family has been serving Brother Timothy's Stuffing, my mother has made only one real change to the recipe, but it's an important one. The original recipe calls for "day-old soft bread crumbs" of no specific type, but after some trial and error, my mother settled on cubed English muffin bread for its yeasty, slightly sour flavor and its firm, even texture. She buys the bread the day before Thanksgiving, and to ensure that it's just right for stuffing, she separates the slices before bed, lays them out on sheet pans and leaves them on the counter, uncovered, overnight. The idea is not to turn the bread to cardboard but to get it a little stale, so that it's no longer moist and squishy. Once cubed, mixed with the other ingredients and baked, the bread plumps nicely, going tender and chewy but never mushy.
My husband and I are spending Thanksgiving with his family in New Jersey this year, and my mother-in-law has her own stuffing recipe. But we'll be back with my family for Christmas, and there's already talk of Brother Timothy's making an appearance. There will also, no doubt, be eggnog with booze in it. But I wouldn't place any bets on a home video.