Okay, so, it’s nowhere near the holidays but I made cornbread last night, and I made too much. I decided I would go ahead and post my recipe for Southern Cornbread Dressing and make some tonight with the leftover cornbread. I know for sure when Thanksgiving dinner rolls around, I sure as hell will not have time to do it with all the other cooking to be done! So, consider this an early holiday gift because this is one I had to make a few times with a little tweaking to get it down to how I like it, and you might want to as well.
My mother was a true Southerner, the “fried-chicken-and-collard-greens” kind of southerner, whereas my dad was pure Cajun. I myself was born in Lafayette. So, lots of my recipes are a kind of southern/cajun hybrid, since I learned to cook from my mom, and that was how she rolled. She learned to cook Cajun food from my dad’s dad, Papa. And she did a lot of “fusion” of the two, which is the food I was raised on.
The thing that makes this dressing special (besides it being my mother’s recipe) is how different and delicious it is compared to other dressings I’ve had. It is both creamy and crispy, moist, rich, and slightly spicy, with a notable absence of sage, which is usually a star player in other cornbread dressings. My mother was not big on sage, and neither am I, so this one suits me just fine. My mom had many people tell her that her dressing was the best they had ever eaten, including their OWN mother’s, which is a pretty big compliment. I’m just glad I was paying attention all those Thanksgivings.
So, let’s get started!
You will need one pan of cornbread. You can use whatever kind you like, as long as it is cooked in a cast iron skillet. I used 3 pouches of “Corn Kits” and we ate I think 3-4 pieces out of it, so I used what was left. If you go that route, 2 pouches should do you fine.
You will also need 4-6 slices of stale bread. I had 5 slices left in a loaf of wheat sandwich bread, so I just set them out this morning and let them get stale. But you can use whatever you have – my mom would throw heels, rolls, leftover hamburger or hotdog buns or whatever into the freezer throughout the year and then pull them out and defrost them at the holidays for the dressing. It really doesn’t matter what you use, though I imagine rye or pumpernickel might give it an odd twist. I would also avoid cinnamon or blueberry bread, for obvious reasons.
Then you will need your spices. This time I used Tony Chachere’s (which I use a LOT), black pepper, some granulated garlic, and a little bit of seasoned salt and kosher salt (not much of each, Tony’s is pretty salty.) This is where I get into trouble with recipes – because I hate measuring out spices and seasonings. Just use what you are comfortable with – I probably used a couple teaspoons of Tony’s, a teaspoon of granulated garlic, a half tablespoon or so of coarse black pepper, and maybe a half teaspoon each of seasoned and kosher salts. You can also put in some extra cayenne if you like more of a kick, or maybe some onion powder or whatever. It’s all up to your taste.
Now, for the aromatics. White (or yellow) onion, bell pepper, celery, and green onion. Cajuns call the trio of onion, bell pepper, and celery “the Trinity” because it is the aromatic base of most cajun recipes. Here I use both green and white onion, because I like onion, and I think the addition of the green onion is part of what gives it that distinctive cajun flair. Here I used most of a large onion, 2 1/2 celery stalks (Jude stole the other half), one green pepper, and about 6 green onions. You can also use colored bell pepper, if you like, for a more festive look. Chop them pretty fine. Aim for about a half cup of each, chopped.
You will also need 4-5 large eggs. I only had four, so I used four. But after eating it, I realized it probably could have used five. This will bind your dressing together. Beat them slightly. I did it right here in this here fifty cent plastic Wal Mart bowl.
And here is the secret: one can of cream of chicken soup. Now, if you are the type of person who turns up their nose at using a can of soup, then maybe my recipes aren’t for you. While I might consider myself a “foodie” (for lack of a better term – I guess I actually prefer “gourmand”) I am definitely NOT a food snob, and if it works and tastes good, then dammit, I’m using it. In this case, you don’t want to leave this out. It really does add a nice creamy texture. I also will take a shortcut when necessary. I am a very busy, and quite lazy wife and mother so I will do what’s necessary to get dinner on the table. Don’t you judge me.
The last important item is the juice. You can use canned broth, or stock, or bullion – whatever you are used to using, but I prefer this:
Chicken base. I love this stuff. Throw a couple of tablespoons in a quart of boiling water and you’ve got stock. Canned broth would be my second choice. You’ll need about 4 cups.
Melt one stick of unsalted butter in a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add your aromatics and saute until they are cooked down a little bit. Here is where I also add the seasonings, because it starts the marriage of flavors and also because it smells so damn good. Set the pan aside and let it cool down for a minute or two.
While the aromatics are cooling, crumble your cornbread into a large mixing bowl. Cube your stale bread into little cubes, or just tear it up into little pieces. It’s all gonna fall apart in the long run so either way. Throw that in, too.
Now add your eggs, and your soup. Then put in the cooled veggies and mix well together.
Start adding your liquid. This is the most important step. You almost can’t have too much, because you can always bake it off, but once it’s baked and too dry, your only resort is to smother it in gravy. Which is not a bad thing, but it’s much better to have a nice, moist dressing. Stir and stir and stir. Let it sit for about 15-30 minutes and stir it some more. You want it to all come together in one chorus of dressing hallelujah. My mom used to mix up the dressing early on Thanksgiving morning and let it sit out all day. When you went into the kichen for anything, you had to give it a stir. I’m sure if you are a food safety stickler, this admission will make you blanch, but we always ate it with much gusto and never got sick, except due to overconsumption. Plus everyone got to add a little love with the stirring, which is why, according to Mom, her dressing was always so delicious. And love is really what it’s all about, right?
Anyway….you want the mix to be really, really wet. Almost soupy and a pretty smooth consistency. You do NOT want any discrete pieces of bread, because then it would be stuffing and someone might accuse you of being a Yankee, which you most certainly do not want. So be patient, and be heavy with the juice.
Here is the most important step: taste it. TASTE IT. If you don’t want to taste something with raw eggs, my mom used to put a little in a ramekin and microwave it, which is certainly acceptable. But don’t deny that you lick the cake mix off the beaters, you hypocrite, and that has raw eggs, too. Here is where you adjust your seasonings. Not spicy enough? A little more cayenne. Not enough salt? Throw in a little more of the kosher. Until it tastes the way you like it. I’m begging you though – do NOT add sage. You don’t want to ruin the magic.
Once it’s to your liking, pour it into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Metal or glass, doesn’t matter. I usually grease it with shortening or butter, which adds a nice crispy crust, but this time I just sprayed it and it was pretty crisp as it was. Just make sure there’s some sort of fat in the pan.
Bake at 350 degrees until the center is set (a knife will come out mostly clean) and the top is golden brown, and the edges are a dark golden brown. Serve with your holiday bird, or just a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. However you serve it, you won’t be sorry. And you might find yourself in the middle of the night, in the dark, in your nightgown, hunting for it in the fridge just to cut a hunk off and eat it cold because you just can’t control yourself. Or maybe that’s just me.