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.)
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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. 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.
BUTTERMILK AND SCALLION JIFFY CORNBREAD
Active: 10 minutes | Total: 35 minutes, plus cooling time
9 to 12 servings (makes one 8-inch square bread)
Swapping buttermilk for milk tempers the sweetness of the classic Jiffy cornbread. For more flavor and texture, we added scallions and frozen roasted corn, but feel free to add your choice of enhancements, including finely chopped bacon, cranberries and/or cheese.
Recipe notes: To make the cornbread entirely from scratch instead of using the Jiffy mix, combine 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large bowl before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
The cornbread is best the day it is made, but if you prefer, it can be baked 1 day in advance and stored, tightly wrapped, at room temperature.
Butter, for greasing the pan
One 8 1/2-ounce package Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
1/3 cup whole or low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 to 2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup frozen roasted corn, thawed under cool tap water and patted dry
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack in the middle. Grease an 8-inch square pan with butter and line the pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the corn muffin mix, buttermilk, egg and salt - the batter will be slightly lumpy. Stir in the scallions and corn until evenly distributed. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then using a round-edged knife loosen the edges, turn out the slab, cut into squares and serve warm.
Nutrition (based on 12 servings) | Calories: 90; Total Fat: 3 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 20 mg; Sodium: 270 mg; Carbohydrates: 16 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 2 g.
(From Becky Krystal; adapted from a recipe on the Jiffy corn muffin mix package.)
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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.
RED WINE CRANBERRY SAUCE
Active: 5 minutes | Total: 20 minutes
8 servings (makes 1 3/4 cups)
This dish is part of a collection of classic back-of-the-package recipes that we've upgraded for your Thanksgiving table with a few simple twists.
This syrupy sauce has a depth of flavor that belies its short cooking time.
Recipe notes: For an alcohol-free version, substitute pomegranate juice for the red wine and increase the sugar to 3/4 cup.
The sauce can be made and refrigerated up to 2 weeks in advance.
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cinnamon stick (optional)
12 ounces fresh cranberries (about 3 cups)
2 long strips tangerine, clementine or orange zest (optional)
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, wine and, if desired, cinnamon and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the wine has reduced slightly, about 4 minutes. Add the cranberries and, if desired, the zest. Simmer until the cranberries soften and the sauce thickens, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat; remove and discard the cinnamon and/or the zest, if using. Set aside to cool for at least several minutes and up to several hours. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition | Calories: 100; Total Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Sodium: 0 mg; Carbohydrates: 22 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 18 g; Protein: 0 g.
(Adapted from "A New Way to Cook" by Sally Schneider. Artisan, 2001.)
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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%. 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.
PEPPERIDGE FARM HERB SEASONED STUFFING WITH CHERRIES AND WALNUTS
Active: 15 minutes | Total: 50 minutes
8 to 10 servings
A few small tweaks to the Pepperidge Farm formula yields a more flavorful, moister stuffing that still boasts a satisfyingly crispy top.
This recipe is ripe for adaptation. Use your favorite type of nut or dried fruit, and mix in other additions, such as sausage and/or herbs as you like.
Recipe notes: To make the stuffing entirely from scratch, cube 16 ounces Pepperidge Farm sliced white sandwich loaf into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes, then toss in 1/4 cup olive oil. Add 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper and toss to combine. Toast in a 350-degree oven (middle rack) on an ungreased, unlined baking sheet for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown, stirring every 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
Toast the nuts in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, stirring frequently, 3 to 5 minutes. Or toast on a rimmed baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 7 to 9 minutes.
The stuffing can be assembled a day in advance, covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking. The baked stuffing can be cooled, covered and refrigerated a day or two in advance. Reheat it, covered, in a 300-degree oven until thoroughly warmed through; uncover for the last 10 minutes, just before serving.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the dish
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cups no-salt-added chicken broth (may substitute vegetable broth)
One 14-ounce package Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Classic Stuffing
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle. Butter a 2-quart ovenproof casserole or similarly sized dish.
In a 4- to 5-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring from time to time, until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the stuffing, cherries, walnuts and lemon zest and gently mix until combined. Transfer to the prepared dish. Bake, uncovered, 30 to 35 minutes, until heated through and the top is crispy and browned. If you prefer a softer stuffing, cover with foil for some or all of the cooking time. Serve warm.
Nutrition | Calories: 300; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 5 g; Cholesterol: 15 mg; Sodium: 580 mg; Carbohydrates: 45 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 13 g; Protein: 4 g.
(From Becky Krystal; adapted from a recipe on the Pepperidge Farm package.)
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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.
FRENCH'S GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE WITH FROM-SCRATCH MUSHROOM SAUCE
Active: 40 minutes | Total: 55 minutes
4 to 6 servings
Green bean casserole is one of the more divisive Thanksgiving dishes, but this recipe could easily convert the skeptics. The key, alas, was ditching the condensed cream of mushroom soup, which we could not get over. (We tried it, and didn't like it.) Instead, we cribbed Alton Brown's from-scratch version, a fairly simple garlicky cream-and-mushroom sauce built in the cast-iron skillet where the casserole is baked. While Brown makes his own oven-fried onions, we found that French's more than got the job done.
Fresh green beans also vastly improve the texture of the dish. A shorter bake at a higher temperature ensures the beans still have bite and the onions on top are beautifully golden and crisp.
Recipe notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.
To make this dish entirely from scratch, instead of using prepared onions, thinly slice 2 medium yellow onions and toss them with 1/4 cup flour, 2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Coat a sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray and evenly spread the onions on it. Roast at 425 degrees (middle rack) for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown, stirring 2 to 3 times during cooking. Remove from the oven and let cool. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound fresh green beans, rinsed, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces mushrooms (aim for a mix, such as white, shiitake and cremini), trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup no-salt-added chicken broth
1 cup half-and-half
1 1/3 cups French's Crispy Fried Onions
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with the rack in the middle.
Bring a large pot of water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl. Add the green beans to the boiling water and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and immediately transfer to the ice bath until completely cool, then drain.
In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook, stirring, for an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the broth and simmer for 1 minute. Decrease the heat to medium and add the half-and-half. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat as needed to prevent the mixture from scorching or bubbling too vigorously.
Remove from the heat and stir in 1/3 cup onions and the green beans. Top with the remaining onions. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the onions are crisp and dark golden brown, and serve.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings) | Calories: 220; Total Fat: 14 g; Saturated Fat: 9 g; Cholesterol: 30 mg; Sodium: 360 mg; Carbohydrates: 16 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 5 g.
(Adapted from an Alton Brown recipe on foodnetwork.com and a recipe on the French's Crispy Fried Onions label.)
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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.
BRUCE'S YAM MALLOW CASSEROLE WITH PINEAPPLE AND CINNAMON
Active: 10 minutes | Total: 55 minutes
12 to 16 servings
To tame what can otherwise be a cloying dish, we reduced the amount of sugar and added pineapple for acidity and ground cinnamon for spice.
Depending on how marshmallow-loving or -averse your crowd is, you can vary their amount and pattern.
Recipe notes: If you don't have a broiler-safe dish, bake the marshmallow-topped casserole at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes. The marshmallows will not be quite as dark or puffy.
The casserole can be baked 1 to 2 days in advance, without the marshmallows, and then covered and refrigerated. Reheat uncovered in a 350-degree oven until heated through, then proceed with broiling with the marshmallows.
To make this dish from scratch, steam about 6 pounds of sweet potatoes (unpeeled) in a few inches of water until fork tender. If your sweet potatoes are large, it might take up to 45 minutes (smaller sweet potatoes might take less time, so start checking at 20 minutes). Let them cool completely, then use your hands to slide the potatoes out of their skins and cut into 1- to 2-inch chunks. Then proceed with the recipe as written.
3/4 cup light or dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Two 40-ounce cans Bruce's Yams Cut Sweet Potatoes in Syrup, drained and broken into smaller pieces with your hands, if desired
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
One 20-ounce can crushed pineapple in juice, well-drained
1 to 2 cups large marshmallows
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the middle.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt and cinnamon. Place the sweet potatoes, butter, pineapple and sugar mixture in a large bowl and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 35 to 40 minutes, until the potatoes look glazed and there are no large pools of melted butter.
Turn the broiler to high. Arrange the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes in your desired pattern. Broil, 1 to 3 minutes, until puffy and browned. Serve warm.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful nutritional analysis.
From Becky Krystal, adapted from a recipe on the Bruce's Yams package.
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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 our staff 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.
LIBBY'S NEW-FASHIONED PUMPKIN PIE WITH DULCE DE LECHE AND CARDAMOM
Active: 15 minutes | Total: 1 hour 10 minutes, plus cooling time
Servings: 8 to 10 (makes one 9-inch pie)
Libby's Pumpkin has updated its back-of-the-package pie for the first time since 1950, and we've taken the modifications a little further. The updated recipe eliminated granulated sugar in favor of sweetened condensed milk, and we figured dulce de leche made a natural next step. (Feel free to use the sweetened condensed if you prefer.) The result is a smooth, slightly caramelized pie with deeper flavor, a lovely, burnished color and an almost flan-like texture.
We amped up the spices, too - increasing the ginger and cinnamon, and subbing floral cardamom and earthy nutmeg for the cloves. Adjust these flavors, or add others, to suit your taste.
Recipe notes: You'll need a 9- or 9 1/2-inch pie dish.
The pie can be made up to 2 days in advance; cover and refrigerate.
One 13.4-ounce can dulce de leche, such as La Lechera brand
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus more for optional garnish
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
One 15-ounce can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 cup evaporated milk
One unbaked 9 or 9 1/2-inch pie shell, store-bought or homemade (see related recipe above)
Whipped cream, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with the rack in the middle.
Transfer the dulce de leche to a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on HIGH for 45 seconds to 1 minute. It should be just warm, not hot, and soft enough to be easily incorporated into the filling. Let cool slightly.
In a small bowl, whisk together the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg and salt. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until combined. Whisk in the pumpkin and spice mixture. Gradually whisk in the evaporated milk. Whisk in the dulce de leche a little at a time, fully incorporating after each addition. Pour the filling into the pie shell.
Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted near center comes out clean. The pie will be mostly set but still jiggle a bit in the center.
Cool on a wire rack for 2 hours. Top with the whipped cream and dust with cinnamon, if desired. Serve immediately or refrigerate until needed.
Nutrition (based on 10 servings) | Calories: 220; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 5 g; Cholesterol: 65 mg; Sodium: 210 mg; Carbohydrates: 30 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 23 g; Protein: 6 g.
(From Becky Krystal, adapted from a recipe on the Libby's Pumpkin label.)
This article was written by Becky Krystal, a reporter for The Washington Post.