Posted Monday, Nov. 21, 2011, at 12:55 PM
For a holiday that ostensibly brings Americans together, Thanksgiving has a knack for highlighting regional fault lines and exposing local prejudices. Consider stuffing, the holiday’s quintessential side dish. The very word invites conflict, since many Southerners call it “dressing,” whether it’s stuffed into a turkey or baked separately from the bird. But the vital controversy arises over substance: Depending on where you’re from and who your ancestors were, you might make it out of white bread, out of rice or other grains—even out of chestnuts.
In which cases you’d be sorely mistaken, because the correct way to make stuffing is out of cornbread. Cornbread is the only foundation for stuffing that provides real character rather than palliative richness (nuts’ only contribution) or insipid, starchy bulk (looking at you, grains and white bread). And unlike its comatose competitors, which passively absorb the flavors around them without contributing anything, cornbread plays well with other ingredients. Its hint of sweetness is the perfect foil for sage, onions, and sausage (though the meat is entirely optional). And since cornbread, thanks to eggs and milk, is typically moister and tenderer than white bread, you don’t have to souse it in melted butter to keep it from sticking dryly to the roof of your mouth.
Which is not to say that cornbread is the only thing you need to make great stuffing. In addition to the aforementioned herbs and aromatic vegetables, cornbread stuffing requires two other important ingredients to keep it from leaning either too crumbly or too leaden.
First: eggs. Eggless stuffing is little more than a casserole dish full of soggy crumbs, ready to explode and scatter as soon as you scoop into them with the serving spoon. A few eggs can turn lumps of broth-soaked bread into a cohesive side dish—and they give cold leftovers an irresistibly dense texture.
What keeps the stuffing from crossing the border between dense and brick-like is croutons—namely, Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Cubed Stuffing. (Be sure to get the cubed kind. It’s a cliché, but the non-cubed Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix really does bear an uncanny resemblance to sawdust.) Whole-food fetishists, spare me your plaints: Just a few small handfuls of prepackaged, dried-bread cubes keep the cornbread mixture from becoming wet concrete—and Pepperidge Farm’s seasoning mix tastes like herbs and salt, not artificial flavors.
You may use fresh sage instead of dried, but you may not substitute any other herb for the sage. Sage is to Thanksgiving what cheap alcohol is to New Year’s Eve or what shallow expressions of love are to Valentine’s Day.
You can pack cornbread stuffing into the cavity of a turkey—but you shouldn’t. There’s not enough room in there for the amount of stuffing you’ll need to feed a Thanksgiving crowd, so you’ll have to cook some extra in a baking dish anyway. And filling the inside of a turkey with solid matter interferes with heat circulation: A stuffed bird can take an hour longer to cook than an unstuffed bird, during which time the meat may lose the last trace of moisture.
My mother’s method, which you’ll find below, is heavily adapted from 1987’s The Southern Living Cookbook, a book that has aged just as well as Strangeways, Here We Come by the Smiths, released that same year. I.e., it’s noticeably of another era, but it’s still pretty damn terrific—and its Old-Fashioned Cornbread Dressing recipe made it a mainstay of my mom’s kitchen when I was growing up.
Accuse me of sentimentality or regional chauvinism if you must, but you’ll thank me after the meal.
Yield: 12 to 18 servings
Time: About 2 hours, plus time for the cornbread to cool
Oil or butter for greasing the pan
2 cups medium-grind yellow cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
5 large eggs
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
2 cups milk, preferably not skim
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
3 medium yellow onions, chopped
8 celery stalks, chopped
½ to 1 pound ground pork sausage (optional)
2 to 3 cups Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Cubed Stuffing or other seasoned croutons
1 tablespoon rubbed dried sage, or more to taste
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning, or more to taste
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or more as needed
1. Heat the oven to 425°F and grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and 2 teaspoons salt in a large bowl. Beat 2 of the eggs in a separate medium bowl, then stir in the oil and milk. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until combined, then transfer the batter to the greased pan. Bake until the cornbread is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool and let sit at room temperature overnight if time allows.
2. Heat the oven to 450°F and grease an 11- by 15-inch baking dish (or a 9- by 13-inch baking dish plus a few ramekins). Put the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it melts, add the onions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a plate or bowl. If you’re using the sausage, add it to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, until no traces of pink remain, about another 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
3. Break the cornbread into 1- to 2-inch chunks in a large bowl. Add the onion mixture and the sausage (if you’re using it) along with the seasoned croutons, sage, poultry seasoning, and a few generous dashes of salt and black pepper. Toss to combine, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Beat the remaining 3 eggs and fold them into the cornbread mixture, then gradually add the stock, stirring gently to avoid breaking up the cornbread chunks, until the mixture is moist but not sopping. Transfer the mixture to the greased pan(s). Bake until golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes, and serve hot or warm.