14 November 2012

Definitive cornbread dressing

In the spirit of Thanksgiving and sharing, I am happy to present the absolute, the standard against which all others are to be judged, the definitive cornbread dressing recipe, updated by cornbread guru Bill Page. "Dressing guru" sounded a bit strange. This updates an earlier truncated version. Take some time to enjoy making this. Festina lente, y'all. 

Please note: it's dressing, not stuffing. 

Real Southern Cornbread Dressing

Making cornbread dressing is an art, not an exact science. 

This recipe makes enough dressing for a crowd of 30 or more. 

Experiment with the recipe to match what your family likes. 

Remember, cornbread dressing is a special type of bread pudding ... you need plenty of liquid to start with.

Do not cook the dressing inside or with the turkey. You run the risk of undercooking one item or overcooking the other. Just cook the dressing in its own pan.

Oil the roasting pan. I use PAM, but you can use butter or Wesson oil.

Most recipes call for equal amounts of white bread and corn bread. 

I use a little more cornbread, and a little less white bread, rather than a 50-50 mix, roughly 2/3 corn bread and 1/3 white bread.

For the white bread, use rolls or biscuits, not plain white bread. 

Buy the cheap kind of canned biscuits--those without butter or other flavoring. 

You can also substitute crushed unsalted saltine crackers for some of the white bread. 

Rip the bread into pieces about the size of the end of your thumb--it's therapeutic. 

I usually cook about 40 biscuits and 48 dinner rolls. This makes enough for me to eat a few while I am cooking. 

Cook this bread several days early, rip it up, freeze it, and then pull it out to thaw the night before the day you will cook the dressing. 

I make four 8.5 x 11 pans of yellow cornbread (each pan requires 3 packages of instant cornbread--so, you need to buy 12 packages total of cornbread mix). The corn bread should be crumbled into lumps. 

You can make the cornbread from scratch, but it will not improve the flavor. I cook the cornbread in advance, crumble it, freeze it, and put it out to thaw the night before. 

If you live in a dry climate, you can let the bread and cornbread sit out and go slightly stale (the mixture soaks up more liquid that way). Otherwise, you can lightly toast the bread, if you want. But, you can also use untoasted bread if you prefer. 

You will have bread left over after you assemble the dressing. This is okay --the exact amount you will need will vary depending on how dry it is and how much liquid it absorbs. Bread is cheap, and it is okay to throw some away (or feed the birds) -- but you don’t want to be left short when making dressing, trying to get more at the last minute.

I use two bags of frozen onions and 3 or 3.5 cups of chopped celery. 

Most recipes call for a lot more celery, but unless your crowd is a big fan of celery, err on the side of adding too little.

You can also keep some onion powder on hand, in case you decide you need more onion flavor at the last minute, after you have mixed up the raw dressing.

Sauté the onions and celery before you mix everything together. As my mother and my Aunt Madge both used to say, no one wants to bite down on a piece of raw celery. I do this the day before, when it is less hectic. 

I sauté the celery first in a little Wesson oil. While that is cooking, I thaw the onions in the microwave. 

Then I sauté the onions (separate from the celery), again using Wesson oil. You can use other vegetable oils, but avoid any with a strong flavor. 

After those vegetables are cooked, I mix in some of the butter (or margarine) and sage, and let those flavors meld together in the refrigerator overnight. I am not sure it makes a lot of difference, except that it is less work when I am actually putting the mixture together right before baking.

I add two or three small tubs of margarine to the dressing. You can use butter, if you prefer. This total includes the butter you already added to the onion / celery mix.

I can't tell much difference between using butter or margarine. The butter has a slightly better flavor, but it also makes the dressing greasier. Soften the butter/ margarine before you add it to the celery and onions – this makes mixing the ingredients much easier.

When its time to add the celery / onion mixture to the dressing, soften it first in the microwave. This makes it much easier to mix the ingredients.

A lot of recipes saw to use poultry seasoning. Well, I use sage, and only about half as much as most recipes suggest. I usually add two or three teaspoons of sage – sometimes just a bit more. This depends on how well your crew likes sage. 

The most important thing is, buy a new bottle of sage. Old sage doesn't have much flavor (which is a good thing, according to some people). 

Tossing out the old bottle of sage is a Thanksgiving tradition at my house.

Most recipes say add salt and pepper to taste. 

I *never* use pepper.

Salt may or may not be needed, depending on how salty your broth is.

I add 4 to 6 eggs slightly beaten. You really do not have to beat the eggs, but you will probably break the yokes when you crack the eggs, and beating them slightly does not add much labor to the overall process.

If you're concerned about salmonella, you can add the egg last – because all great cooks (ahem) taste the dressing as they go along. 

I've never heard of anyone getting sick from the eggs in raw dressing, and I don't worry about it (you can quote me on your tombstone).

But I would not feed raw dressing to a young child or to a person with health problems … why tempt fate?

You need to add chicken broth or bouillon. I use a mixture of canned broth and powdered bouillon. You can make your own broth but I can't tell much difference, except it's a lot more work to cook the broth first. However, the broth does smell wonderful when it’s simmering. And if you carve the turkey the night before, cooking the bones makes you feel really virtuous. As for me, I favor sloth. 

I generally use two 2.25 ounce jars of Weylen’s Chicken bouillon granules (mixed in 3 or 4 cups of water), plus 2 to 4 cans of low sodium chicken broth. You can buy the more expensive organic chicken broth, but I can’t tell any difference.

If you are worried about the dressing having too strong a chicken flavor, add less of the powdered bouillon granules to start with. You can always add more later, but you can’t take it out once it is in the dressing.

I add enough milk to make the mixture "soupy". I usually use four small cans of canned milk, which makes for a richer flavor. If you use regular milk, you may want to increase the amount of butter somewhat. 

If you need more liquid, you can add a little water, or plain milk. 

The desired texture of the raw dressing is hard to describe – it should be a bit thicker than lumpy oatmeal, and you should have a little free liquid around the edge of the pan. Remember, you want the raw dressing to be “goopy” – this is a bread pudding you are making. 

The raw dressing should taste about like the final product, after it has been cooked.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

It usually takes me 20 to 30 minutes to assemble the raw dressing – just about long enough for the oven to get hot.

Bake in a covered container. 

If you want, you can uncover the dressing for the last 10 to 15 minutes, either to brown the top of the dressing, or if you get too much liquid in the mix this will dry it out.

The cooking time depends partly on how much liquid you used. It typically takes between 1 ¼ and 1 ½ hours – sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. 

The dressing will stay hot for a long time, especially if you wrap the pan in clean towels.

04 November 2012

To Autumn

  John Keats (1795-1821)

    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 

 And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
        Until they think warm days will never cease, 
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
        Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find 
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind; 

Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 
        Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook 
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers: 
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
        Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
        Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, 
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,— 
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue; 

 Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft 
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 

        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft 
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; 
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies