RECIPE

Try my grandmother's comforting cornbread dressing which anchors all my holiday meals

"Hard to believe what is basically a bread casserole is so important, but it is."

Published November 23, 2022 4:00PM (EST)

Skillet corn bread (Getty Images / Vrinda Mahesh / 500px)
Skillet corn bread (Getty Images / Vrinda Mahesh / 500px)

In "Bibi's Gulf Coast Kitchen," columnist Bibi Hutchings takes you on a culinary journey across the coastal south. Come for the great food writing, stay for the delicious recipes.

Thanksgiving isn't Thanksgiving without turkey and dressing in my family. Really though, it's the dressing that's non-negotiable; there must be dressing. Everything else is up for interpretation and discussion, but what is now known in my family as my dressing (it's my grandmother's recipe) must be on the table. Hard to believe what is basically a bread casserole is so important, but it is. 

A quick Google search will tell you straight away that dressing is what we have at Thanksgiving in place of stuffing in the South. Its base is cornbread, and it's baked in a casserole dish. It has a smoother consistency than stuffing and is beloved in a way I have never known or heard stuffing to be. I'm not saying stuffing is inferior, because the truth is I have never had "Thanksgiving stuffing," but if I'm honest, I think there is a strong possibility it might be. 

Dressing is a very special kind of comfort food, and no two recipes are the same. I'd say what they all have in common is that everyone believes their own family's version is the best, and according to where you hail from in the South, yours will have a few key differences. Take, for example, oyster dressing. I never even tasted it until I was grown, yet it's very traditional if you grew up along the coast. Other variations like sausage and oyster dressing, grits dressing, pecan dressing, crawfish dressing are just a few of the variations I know of personally, but I didn't grow up with any of those. There is only one Thanksgiving dressing in my family, the one I will share with you here, which is from my paternal grandmother, Grammy.  

Food memories from childhood are powerful, and for most of us, our childhood Thanksgivings were happy times. Mine certainly were, most often spent with my grandparents in north Mississippi with aunts, uncles and cousins; playing games, riding horses, sitting around the fireplace and having second helpings of our favorite desserts

Our palates were formed by these annual meals, so I understand the strong connection people have to their families' most venerated Thanksgiving recipes. I inherited this dressing recipe and the cornbread recipe from my paternal Grammy, who like my dad was born and raised just north of Oxford, Mississippi in a town called Abbeville, about 50 miles south of the Tennessee state line. By the time I was born, her cornbread recipe and this dressing recipe had crossed over to my mother's side of the family, who are also from north Mississippi, so it is all I have ever known. Wherever we spent Thanksgiving, Grammy's dressing was served.

 Most often, we spent the long Thanksgiving weekend at Pop and Grammy's. After Thanksgiving dinner, my sister and I would get up in the night, go into the kitchen, pull the dressing out from the refrigerator, slice little squares, and eat it cold as our midnight snack. And our cousins did the same thing! Now we were kids who had four or five desserts and homemade cookies within our grasp, but we all went for the dressing — cold dressing at that. That's how good it is! 

I grew up around, was raised by, and have been lucky enough to continue to be around tremendously good cooks, Grammy being one of the very best. This dressing of hers has been a lauded addition to so many Thanksgiving dinners over the years, from those hosted by trained chefs and gifted home cooks to being included in my early Friendsgiving-potlucks right out of college. Everyone loves it. It provides the perfect savory backdrop to all the traditional Thanksgiving flavors on your plate. 

Yes, it triggers my happy Thanksgiving memories of being at my grandparents house with my cousins and aunts and uncles, riding horses and standing by the fire until my britches got hot to the touch. From the first bite to the last, I feel my grandmother's presence, and I am so grateful to have my family recipes. But this dressing has also found its light among strangers. Even those who love their own families' dressing, still love this dressing. And even those who choose to venture out and serve a more gourmet or non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner love this dressing. I have never served it to anyone who didn't love it.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with good food and lots of cheer. I am making sure to carve out extra time this year to focus on how grateful and thankful I am to have so many friends and family members, people I love so much and who are so supportive and kind, in my life. This year has been one of my most challenging, and perhaps because of that, preparing this Thanksgiving dinner for my family feels more important than ever. Aside from a new dessert (or two), we are opting for a very traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year, and just like my grandmother did, I'll make extra pans of dressing to satisfy everyone 's need for leftovers.   


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Cornbread 
Yields
1 10-inch cast iron skillet
Prep Time
5 minutes
Cook Time
25 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Pinch of sugar
1 cup milk
**1 cup mayonnaise (or you can use omit and double the milk to 2 cups) 
1 egg

 

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 425
  2. Mix dry ingredients and set aside
  3. Mix wet ingredients and add to cornmeal mixture, careful to not over beat. Fold in as much as possible.
  4. Place iron skillet in hot oven with either bacon grease or butter until very hot. Remove and pour cornbread batter into skillet and return to oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown on top.
Cornbread stuffing 
Yields
1 large casserole dish
Prep Time
15 minutes
Cook Time
1 hour 

Ingredients

1-2 onions, finely chopped
3-4 stalks of celery, finely chopped
3-4 slices of white bread (dried out), crumbled
**Giblet stock (or stock/broth) to moisten
2-3 boiled eggs, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Sage to taste
2-3 eggs, slightly beaten

 

Directions

  1. Make cornbread and allow time for it to cool.

  2. Crumble cornbread into a large bowl.

  3. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl.

  4. Add enough stock/broth so that the dressing is quite runny, a bit thinner than cake batter.

  5. Preheat oven to 400.

  6. Pour into large buttered casserole dish and cook 1 hour.


Cook's Notes

Cornbread Dressing
There are two things you must keep in mind when you make this dressing. The first is you must test it along the way for seasoning, particularly salt and sage, so don't add your raw eggs in until you are satisfied with the flavor. The second is the mixture should be runny like batter, so keep plenty of stock on hand to add little by little until it is the right consistency.

Allow time for your cornbread to lower to room temperature before making dressing out of it. Also make sure your white bread is stale or totally dried out. 

Cornbread
Just like Thanksgiving dressing, everyone's cornbread recipe is a little different. This is my family's recipe, and it can be altered a bit to accommodate what you have on hand.

The ratio for this cornbread is equal parts liquid to dry, so whatever mixture of milk and mayo you use should equal two cups. I use more milk and less mayo as a rule because that was the way I was taught even though the recipe states the ratio as half and half. You can also replace the milk with buttermilk or a non-dairy milk. 

You must not over beat this cornbread. The best way to combine is to make a well in your cornmeal mixture, pour the milk mixture in, and gently fold the wet into the dry. 

You should put your buttered or greased iron skillet into the oven to get hot before mixing the batter so that as soon as you have the batter ready, it can go into the hot skillet and into the oven. The hot bacon grease or butter should be about 1/8" thick and very hot so that the batter fries as it is poured in.

I use a 10" iron skillet, but a 12" skillet will work as well.
 

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By Bibi Hutchings

Bibi Hutchings, a lifelong Southerner, lives along a quiet coastal Alabama bay with her cat, Zulu, and husband, Tom. She writes about the magical way food evokes memories, instantly bringing you back to the people, places and experiences of your life. Her stories take you all around the South and are accompanied with tried-and-true recipes that are destined to become a part of your memory-making as you share them with your friends and family.         

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