When making Thanksgiving dressing, Grandma Monnette had one simple rule
Updated November 21, 2023 at 5:24 AM ET
All Things We're Cooking is an NPR series that features family recipes from you, our readers and listeners, and the special stories behind them. Throughout the holiday season, we will share some of your kitchen gems that were popular with our audiences last year. This story was originally published on Nov. 20, 2022.
Stu Haley's Grandma Monnette had one rule when it came to the dressing at Thanksgiving: You never eat anything that comes out of the turkey.
Rebecca Monnette was just trying to make sure her family didn't get sick, Haley says, so as an alternative, she made perfect, sphere-shaped dressing balls that came together with a few simple ingredients. White bread, onions, carrots, celery, stock, eggs and sage, with a pinch of salt and pepper, are all you need.
"This was a way that she could guarantee that everybody got something because each piece, you know, each ball was portioned out," Haley said. "It just reminds me of her because not many people made this. She's been gone since 1972, so whenever I make it — and I talk to my cousin about this, even he said it — it's sort of like it brings her to the table with us now."
Haley grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, but his grandma lived in the smaller town of Marion, Ohio. Anytime his family made the two-hour drive down, it meant that he was entering a place where he felt safe, he said — a refuge from what he described as a chaotic home life.
"It was a safe haven," Haley said. "When I was with her, I knew everything would be OK. I knew that there wouldn't be any arguing. There wouldn't be any yelling or screaming. Everything was just very calm with her, and everybody was on their best behavior."
Those Thanksgiving celebrations meant the world to Haley, and after his grandma died, the holiday gatherings slowly started to come undone without her there as the glue to keep the family together, he said.
But 20 or so years ago, Haley (who lives in Baltimore now) started making the dressing balls on his own. These days, they're once again a staple at Thanksgiving and at other celebrations, including special gatherings with his husband's family in July.
"If I take these to a dinner, if I get two left over for us, we're doing really good," he said.
As for how to best eat the delectable, savory treats, Haley said people often top them with a heaping of gravy, though he adds his own touch.
"My favorite is with a bite of the dressing ball, some gravy, and then just a little bit of that jellied cranberry sauce," he said.
- 2 loaves of store-bought white bread, cut into quarter-size cubes
- 1 tablespoon ground sage
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 or 2 eggs
- 16 to 24 ounces of chicken stock, turkey stock or vegetable stock
- sliced celery
- diced white onion
- diced carrots (only you know how much your people like carrots)
- 1 tablespoon butter
The night before you are going to make the dressing balls, cube the bread and place in a large mixing bowl with a single paper towel covering the cubes.
In the morning, toss them and cover with the paper towel until you are going to make them. You want them soft stale, not hard like croutons.
Slice the carrots and start them in the saute pan with medium heat with the butter.
Once they have started cooking, add the celery. When these are soft, add in the onion. You want to move them around the pan on medium heat until they are soft, adding the salt and pepper while they cook.
Remove from the pan and set aside. Deglaze the skillet with a little of the stock and work up the brown bits. Turn off the heat and allow to cool.
Mix the egg, and then pour over the bread cubes. Add in the onion, celery and sage and the deglazed pan drippings.
Slowly add in about half the remaining stock.
Now, thoroughly wash your hands. You are going into the bread and the egg-broth-covered bread with both hands. Everything should be mixed, tossed, etc. but don't squeeze. If the mixture is too dry, add a little of the reserve stock. You want the whole mixture just moist enough for the balls to keep their shape, not wet.
Bring out two cookie sheets. Mold the mixture into balls larger than a golf ball, but smaller than a baseball. Gently compact them just so they hold their form. Space them out on the sheets.
Bake immediately for 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees if your oven keeps a true temperature. For extra crispy outsides, brush with an egg wash.
Served best with plenty of gravy. Great for Thanksgiving.
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