Stroll through just about any grocery store this time of year, and you’ll come across aisles and end caps brimming with what marketing, tradition and consumer habits have deemed essential Thanksgiving ingredients: Canned pumpkin. Bags of marshmallows. Cans of sweet potatoes. Cartons of crispy onions. These have become American Turkey Day staples, but almost every package has at least one more thing in common: a recipe on the label.
After so many years, it’s hard to know which came first, the popularity of the ingredients or the dishes they star in. It’s your typical chicken-and-egg conundrum, but the fact is, it doesn’t matter. However they got there, these dishes have been folded into many of our Thanksgiving meals.
The real question is, how do they hold up? I decided to test package recipes for six staples, and I’m happy to report that all, save one, were pretty good, if not great. That doesn’t surprise me, a self-taught cook who made a lot of label dishes in my early years in the kitchen.
It really shouldn’t surprise you, either. After all, brands often have just one shot to impress a customer with a recipe using one of their products. “You better make sure that recipe is airtight or else they’re not going to come back and buy it again,” says Meredith Tomason, the test kitchen manager and chef at Nestlé USA.
Tomason, the pastry chef behind the late RareSweets bakery in Washington, works hand-in-hand with the marketing staff from Nestlé’s brands to develop “back of pack” recipes. The factors the team considers include food trends, the way consumers are using the products and the equipment found in a typical home kitchen. Tomason also generally assumes she is writing for a beginning to mid-level cook, so the instructions need to be simple and brief to not only appeal to them but also fit on the label. The balance is “how can we make it inspirational and aspirational and still easy at the same time,” she says.
Case in point: Libby’s “famous pumpkin pie.” Libby’s is a Nestlé brand, so when its staff decided it wanted a new pie recipe for its redesigned label, Tomason started tinkering. The biggest alteration involved subbing sweetened condensed milk for the granulated sugar and some of the evaporated milk. Tomason cites two reasons for this: A creamier texture and the fact that dumping in a whole can of sweetened condensed milk is easier than pulling out the measuring cups and your bag of sugar.
She certainly felt the pressure of wading into changing a recipe that has been on the package since 1950. “Heritage brands … stand the test of time for a reason,” Tomason says. “They become part of your family tradition.” In other words, “I was like, ‘Oh, I better get this right.’ ”
As you’ll see, I was pleased to discover that she did. But I couldn’t help putting my own spin on Libby’s “new-fashioned pumpkin pie,” as well as the rest of the package recipes I’m sharing here. Tomason says she is more than okay with that.
She expects home cooks to use package recipes as a jumping-off point after they’ve made and come to trust them. “They’re simple enough that you can make it your own in some capacity,” she says.
Challenge accepted. Here’s my take on some of the most popular Thanksgiving standbys. (In most of the recipes linked to below, you’ll also find variations if you prefer a totally from-scratch meal.)
Talk about a straightforward recipe. Blend Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix with milk and an egg, dump into a pan and bake. The resulting cornbread turned out to be the back-of-the-package dish I would have been happiest eating without any alterations. As I established with a from-scratch recipe I published last year, I already lean toward cornbread with a little sugar, so the fact that Jiffy skewed sweet didn’t bother me.
Still, I knew I could back off the sweetness just a bit and bring the bread into more savory territory, especially when Thanksgiving tends to include plenty of sweets anyway. Swapping buttermilk for milk definitely helped. After that, the mix-ins can take the cornbread in just about any direction you want. For more flavor and texture, I added scallions and frozen roasted corn, but you should feel free to add your choice of enhancements, including finely chopped bacon, cranberries and/or cheese.
The cranberry sauce was a close second in terms of least tinkering needed. The recipe on the Ocean Spray bag of fresh berries (the same as the one on the generic package from my local Safeway) was absolutely fine. It did have too much sugar, and since this is one of the only dishes designed to bring some tart relief, I thought a variation was in order.
I didn’t have to look very far. A Red Wine Cranberry Sauce recipe The Washington Post published 15 years ago fit the bill. Swapping in wine for the water added immediate depth and complex flavor. Whereas the original recipe offers a 1-to-1 ratio of sugar to water, cutting back both quantities — 3/4 cup wine and 2/3 cup sugar — gave us a slightly thicker, less sweet sauce. Cinnamon and orange zest rounded everything out. They’re optional, however, and it would not be out of line to experiment with different flavors or spices, such as star anise, nutmeg, cloves or vanilla bean. Lemon and even grapefruit zest are worth considering.
There’s no need to fret if alcohol is a concern. Pomegranate juice makes for a fantastic substitute for the wine. Just bump the sugar up a little to compensate for the fact that the juice is particularly mouth-puckering.
I lived most of my life with zero interest in stuffing, a.k.a dressing. The boxed brand my mom used to make (and has since dropped from her repertoire in favor of a much more popular Jewish noodle kugel) never appealed to me, and given the rest of the meal, I never felt deprived of carbs. A few years ago, I started making stuffing from scratch, and I got a little bummed about how many years I missed out on the good stuff.
Enter the Pepperidge Farm bag. As far as cheats go, this one didn’t bother me too much, as it is mostly dried bread and spices. The stuffing wasn’t awful, but it needed improvement. First, it was too salty. Solution: Use no-salt-added stock. It was too dry. So I increased the stock by 50 percent. The flavor and texture was a bit one-dimensional as well, so in went dried cherries, toasted walnuts and lemon zest. I also took the package’s suggestion to cook the stuffing uncovered if you like a crispy top. And we did.
With my basic structural improvements in place, you can choose your own adventure with the mix-ins. Use your favorite type of nut or dried fruit, and incorporate other additions, such as sausage and/or herbs, as you like.
This recipe was an example of how the actual instructions aren’t always ideal, either. The bag suggests cooking the celery and onion in a 3-quart saucepan into which you add the stock and then the stuffing. The problem? That’s a pretty small pan, so the veggies steamed more than sauteed, and stirring in the stuffing made for a very tight, messy fit. Upsizing to a 4- or 5-quart pan solved both issues.
GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE
If stuffing was of zero interest for me, green bean casserole veered into negative-interest territory. Canned green beans? No, thanks. Condensed cream of mushroom soup? Let’s just say a particularly disastrous childhood dish (my mom still rues the day she made it) scarred me for life. Jiggling the cream of mushroom soup to make the recipe on the French’s Crispy Fried Onions was not promising, and the finished dish did not restore my faith in this Thanksgiving staple. The beans were overcooked (even though I’d used fresh rather than canned or frozen), the soup sauce both bland and unappetizing.
As to the cream of mushroom soup: It. Had. To. Go. I figured some kind of roux-thickened bechamel sauce made with flour, butter and mushrooms was the answer. But I also knew plenty of people have tried this before me. Why reinvent the wheel?
I turned to Alton Brown, as reliable source as any. His recipe consists of a fairly simple, garlicky cream and mushroom sauce that’s built in the cast-iron skillet in which the casserole is baked. While Brown makes his own oven-fried onions, we found that French’s more than got the job done. They were, after all, the best part of the package recipe. A shorter bake at a higher temperature ensured that the beans still had bite and the onions on top were beautifully golden and crisp.
SWEET POTATO CASSEROLE
The yam-mallow casserole on the side of the Bruce’s Yams can also left much to be desired, in terms of directions and ingredients. Holes in the recipe included what size dish to use and how to prep the butter. Testing it as printed resulted in a concoction that was too sweet, too greasy and too small to feed a crowd.
What really helped drive my changes was the casserole my mom (and probably her mom before her) has made for years. A can of crushed pineapple provided much-needed acidity (be sure to press as much liquid out of it as you can), and a dose of ground cinnamon cut through everything. To add heft, I doubled the amount of sweet potatoes — despite being canned in syrup, they don’t taste overly saccharine. This also improved the potato-to-marshmallow ratio.
I realized that even though I doubled the potatoes, I didn’t want to double the sugar or butter. Knocking the butter back to a mere 1/4 cup — less than the original recipe called for — and using less than twice the amount of brown sugar gave me a well-balanced dish that was sweet and spiced but wouldn’t be mistaken for dessert. Depending on how marshmallow-loving or -averse your crowd is, you can vary their amount and pattern. Broiling them browns and sets them beautifully. Leaving the marshmallows off entirely is, of course, totally fine.
As much as I love desserts, pumpkin pie has never been my passion. But I dutifully made the recipe on the Libby’s package. It was okay. The cloves were much too prominent for our panel of tasters, and, as expected, I couldn’t get excited about the somewhat watery texture of the filling. Even as I started to think of ways to tweak the recipe with, yes, sweetened condensed milk, we heard about the brand’s own pie-recipe makeover.
The revision dramatically improved the texture in my opinion, giving the filling a firmer, silkier feel. But then I thought about how I could channel the Pumpkin-Caramel Tart recipe I shared a few years ago from Bon Appétit. The answer: Take the next logical step and exchange the sweetened condensed milk for canned dulce de leche.
The result was a smooth, slightly caramelized pie with more depth of flavor, a lovely burnished color and an almost flanlike texture. Because Team Voraciously is firmly anti-cloves, I cut them entirely. I amped up the other spices to compensate — increasing the ginger and cinnamon and subbing floral cardamom and nutmeg for the cloves. (It turned out to be eerily similar to Tomason’s chai spice variation on the package, which I did not see until after I’d tested my version. Synergy!) Adjust these flavors, or add others, to suit your taste.
Make the recipe: Libby’s New-Fashioned Pumpkin Pie With Dulce de Leche and Cardamom
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