In the South, no meal would be complete without some form of cornbread, and no holiday can be had without cornbread dressing. Unlike in the North, where it is known as stuffing, this dish of crumbled bread moistened with broth is always baked outside the bird in a casserole dish (I realize this may be confusing, as it was when my boyfriend came to dinner, people kept offering him more dressing, but he couldn't figure out what he was supposed to put it on). You can think of it as stuffing, but around here, we call it dressing. My grandmother, Lida Lee, was born and raised in Tennessee and this is her recipe. The key to good homemade dressing is proper Southern cornbread and plenty of freshly made giblet stock. Though at its heart it is a simple, dish, in my experience it takes a bit of practice to a get a feel for making good dressing.
I've done the recipe as a pictorial, you can also get the printable version.
First, get out the 10" cast iron skillet and make your good old fashioned Southern cornbread. My grandmother kept about 20 different cornbread preparations in her repertoire, she called this kind of bread "egg bread" because it included eggs, unlike many other corn pones, corn cakes, hot water corn bread, etc. Basically, combine dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, bake at 450 F for 20 minutes.
It's best if you make the cornbread one or two days ahead, so it can dry out slightly. Of course, if you make it ahead, this will probably happen:
Cornbread, toasted, with honey drizzled on top, makes very good breakfast. Oops. But, for the purposes of the recipe you will be needing all the cornbread. Consider yourself warned.
Now, on Thanksgiving morning you get those giblets, you know the funky looking things that you had to stick your whole forearm up inside the turkey to dig out (fyi- if you have a kosher turkey you won't have giblets. We made this mistake one year and spent half of Thanksgiving day running around to butchers trying to find giblets). Giblets are your nuggets of gold here. Put them in a stock pot, I usuallly toss in the turkey neck too. Add 32 oz purchased low-sodium stock and 4 cups water and barely simmer for as long as possible, at least an hour and up to 3 hours. Then, dump in 1 cup each of chopped onion and celery and simmer for another 1/2 hour, until completely soft.
Meanwhile crumble your cornbread (get your fingers messy now). Also add 5-6 slices of stale sandwich bread, even if you didn't snack on your cornbread. You can use white or whole wheat, we like to use the heels. Add 1/2 cup chopped parsley (if you like sage you can add some of that too) and some black pepper. Now, here is where we deviate slightly from Lida Lee. Grandmother's recipe uses only stock to moisten the bread. But for years my version was never quite the perfect texture, so I started adding an egg to ensure fluffiness. My mom is like the genius of dressing makers and she uses only broth, but until I figure out the secret to her technique, the egg trick works nicely.
So, stir in a beaten egg, the proteins in it will help keep the perfect texture. Then, add the super-soft vegetables into the bread. This is the part where lily-gilders will add things like sausage and oysters and the like, in our family we do not practice such heretical acts.
Now, slowly ladle in the stock, this is the make-or-break part of your dressing. You do not want dry dressing, dry dressing is a true tragedy. I live in fear of dry dressing. To prevent this, add more stock than you think you should, if your dressing is too dry, there's no going back; however if the dressing is too wet, you can simply keep baking it to dry it out. So, add enough stock to make a soft porridgy consistency.
Presumably, you've timed this so you are now taking your turkey out of the oven. Pat the dressing into a greased baking dish, and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of those turkey drippings over the dressing (I say a couple in the "really I'm probably pouring on more like a 1/4 cup but I don't want to admit it" sense). If you don't have turkey drippings you can use melted butter.
Bake dressing at 350 F for about 20-25 minutes. Meanwhile, you're tenting your turkey with foil and running around like a mad woman trying to get the other dishes onto the table. After 20 minutes, test the dressing to make sure the bottom isn't too soupy, it should be golden and moist. If it needs a few more minutes, tell them to start carving the turkey, that part always takes forever. Serve hot, and enjoy.
Lida Lee's Cornbread Dressing
for the cornbread:
2 cups cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda, pinch salt
2 cups buttermilk
2 tbl shortening
for the dressing:
5-6 slices stale sandwich bread, white or whole wheat, preferably the heels
32 oz low-sodium chicken stock
4 cups water
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tbl turkey drippings or melted butter
1. Make the cornbread: Preheat the oven to 450 F. Put the shortening in a 10 inch cast iron skillet and place in the oven to preheat. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the milk and eggs and stir to blend. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and swirl it around so it is well greased. Pour any excess oil into the batter, then pour the batter into the hot skillet. It will sizzle. Bake in the oven for 20-22 minutes, until golden. Let cool completely. Best if done 1-2 days ahead. I usually go ahead and crumble the cornbread 1-2 days ahead so the crumbs can dry out.
2. Make giblet stock: Place the giblets in a pot, if you want you can toss in the turkey neck too. Add the stoc and the water. Bring the mixture to a boil, skim the surface, then lower to the lowest possible simmer. The mixture should steam but not bubble. Simmer for at least one hour, or up to 3 hours, the longer the better. It will reduce slightly, but not too much. Add the chopped onion and celery and simmer another 1/2 hour until the vegetables are very soft.
3. Crumble the cornbread with the sandwich bread in a large bowl. Add the egg and stir to distribute. Using a slotted spoon, add the onion and celery to the mixture. Gently ladle the stock into the mixture, moistening it to a soft porridge like consistency. It is always better to add too much stock than risk your cornbread being dry. Season with pepper, salt, and add the chopped parsley.
4. Spread the cornbread mixture in a greased casserole dish. (presumably, you've timed this so that your turkey is now coming out of the oven and is going to rest while you bake the dressing and reheat all those other dishes). Drizzle about 3 tablespoons of the turkey drippings over the dressing (or more, as you like), then place in a 350 F oven until for 20-25 minutes, until nicely browned. Check to see that the dressing is the desired consistency: moist but not soupy, if it seems too wet you can bake it 5 more minutes, but be carefully not to make it too dry. Serve immediately.