Ahh, the holiday rotation. Years ago, my hubby and I put a system in place that divvied up the holidays as fairly as possible among the grandparents, none of whom live here in Baton Rouge. I won’t bore you with the drama (you can probably relate), I’ll just share the result. For the last 15 years, the system has pretty much had us traveling to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving, while we host Christmas. I love planning and hosting the Christmas meal, but I have to admit, I miss the opportunity to cook — really cook — traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Sure, we bring stuff. But it’s minor. The main meal, and especially the dressing, is claimed by our family’s various Thanksgiving hosts. And you gotta respect territoriality, especially where cornbread dressing is involved.
Few dishes spark such strong feelings. Our extended families generally likes a pure cornbread format. (For the record, I’m not talking about oyster or crawfish dressing — those fall into a completely different category.) White breadcrumbs, the kind that go into stuffing, would make them see red. And while some of them do add ground sausage, they’d never come close to including foreign matter like fruit or nuts. Back when I was single and I hosted Thanksgiving dinner with my friends here in Baton Rouge, I’d make both, a super plain cornbread dressing, and a Silver Palate version with three different kinds of bread, sausage, apples and pecans. If I brought that to a family meal today, I’d probably be asked to leave.
So during Thanksgiving dinner, I obediently enjoy other people’s tasty creations. And they are tasty. I just wish I’d been the one to get them to the table. Maybe I’m a masochist, but there’s something cool about wearing yourself out making most of the meal, and the dressing in particular. It’s so simple, yet so easy to ruin. And getting it right – and making it taste like memory – means the world to everyone seated. You’re such a stud if you deliver.
I plan a different menu for Christmas dinner (no turkey and dressing), so I lose the chance to make it then, too. Instead, I steal a night sometime in November for a family meal of roast chicken, homemade cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce and gravy. And sometimes, after everyone has gone to bed, I go back for an extra, over the sink, helping.
Here’s my recipe.
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery, with leaves
1 bay leaf
About 6 cups crumbled cornbread, broken apart and ground with your fingers*
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon dried sage
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock, plus another ½ cup
Salt and pepper to taste
*Begin by baking a pan of cornbread in cast iron skillet. I use Aunt Jemima Corn Meal Mix, and I do not add the optional sugar to the dry ingredients. Remove cornbread oven and let cool. As soon as cornbread is cool enough to handle, break it part with your fingers in a large mixing bowl until it is (mostly) finely ground.
Heat olive oil to medium high and sauté onions and celery with bay leaf until vegetables are soft. Remove bay leaf. Pour vegetables and any remaining oil into bowl with cornbread. Add rosemary, sage and thyme. Add chicken stock slowly while combining. The amount of stock will depend on the consistency of the cornbread and how much liquid it absorbs; 2 ½ cups usually works, but I keep 1 cup in reserve. The mixture should be wet but still thick.
Taste a small amount for salt and pepper (I know it’s cold, but this is important!), and adjust.
Pour mixture into a 9×12 glass casserole dish that has been prepared with cooking spray. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until dressing is firm and brown on top.