Perfect Cornbread Dressing

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By Emily Paster

When life gives you leftover cornbread, make cornbread dressing. That is exactly what I did last week. In anticipation of a busy day, I had made turkey chili in my slow cooker in the morning. When I got home, less than an hour before dinner time, I decided that the chili wasn't quite enough for the hearty dinner that we needed after a busy fall day. Luckily, I had just enough time to whip up a batch of corn muffins, which I think of as the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of red.

Well, don't you know it, both kids rejected my corn muffins. My husband and I loved the muffins, but the two of us could barely make a dent in a batch of a dozen. As I sadly packed up the ten or so leftover muffins, wondering how much fun it would be to eat corn muffins every day for breakfast for a week, it occurred to me that those leftovers would make the perfect base for a cornbread dressing to accompany one of the week's meals. The fact that it would be good recipe testing for Thanksgiving was not lost on me either. So I altered my menu plan for the week and changed the starch for the Chicken with Wine Sauce from egg noodles to cornbread dressing. And in the category of kids-are-baffling, the same 10 year old child (ahem, Zuzu, ahem) who rejected the corn muffins loved the dressing made with those exact same muffins.  Go figure.

When you research recipes for cornbread dressing, as I did, what you find is that most such recipes call for a combination of cornbread and white bread croutons, usually those made by Pepperidge Farm. As much as I like some Pepperidge Farm products — the frozen puff pastry comes to mind — I was not interested in that kind of dressing. (By the way, why do I keep calling it dressing and not stuffing? Because I didn't stuff it into anything. When it is baked in a casserole dish, it's dressing.) With my ulterior motive of using up a lot of leftover cornbread, a mixed cornbread-white bread dish was not at all what I needed. But moreover, I really wanted a traditional cornbread stuffing that felt classically American. I also didn't want a dressing that called for sausage because, as you know, we don't have pork in my house. (Plus, I never understood the idea of putting meat in dressing anyway. Isn't dressing supposed to be a side dish for chicken or turkey? Why do you need more meat? If I am missing something here, please let me know.)

After some poking around, I found a good recipe for an all-cornbread dressing on Martha Stewart's website, but then I had to adapt it to what I had on hand and my family's predilections, which do not include celery. So I swapped out the celery for apple and played around with the herbs. The result was a cornbread dressing that is moist, bursting with flavor and has a texture that is more akin to a corn pudding than a traditional cubed dressing. The benefit to this kind of dressing is that it is perfectly delicious even without gravy.  As I mentioned, I served it alongside some braised chicken with a thin white wine sauce and everyone loved it.

But I also think that this kind of cornbread dressing would be perfect alongside a Thanksgiving turkey and some hearty turkey gravy. Here's an added bonus to this rich cornbread dressing made with egg: if you are expecting any vegetarians at your Thanksgiving table, this dressing will provide them with some protein and a dish that feels like more than just another side dish. Just be sure to replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

So, if you are looking for a moist, flavorful and substantial cornbread dressing this Thanksgiving, this recipe may just fit the bill.

Apple and Sage Cornbread Dressing

For the cornbread, you can use store-bought cornbread or make your own. I follow the recipe for Northern Corn Bread in the Joy of Cooking, which uses a combination of cornmeal and flour and both milk and buttermilk. Martha Stewart also has a recipe for buttermilk cornbread, which looks excellent.

  • 1 batch cornbread or corn muffins (see note below)
  • 4 TB butter plus 1 tsp. for the baking dish
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, diced
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 12 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Butter a 2 quart glass or ceramic baking dish.
  3. In a large skillet, melt the 4 TB butter over medium heat.
  4. Add the diced onion to the skillet and saute until softened, about five minutes.
  5. Add the diced apple to the skillet and toss with the onion to combine. Saute over medium-low heat until the onion is translucent and the apple soft, about ten minutes.
  6. Season the apple and onion with the dried thyme and salt and pepper. Saute a few additional minutes until fragrant. Turn off the heat and set aside.
  7. In a large bowl, crumble the cornbread or corn muffins.
  8. Add the onion and apple mixture to the crumbled cornbread. Stir to combine. Stir in the chicken or vegetable broth, the beaten eggs and the chopped herbs.
  9. Season mixture well with salt and pepper.
  10. Pour the dressing into the buttered baking dish and smooth the top.
  11. Bake uncovered for 45-50 minutes, until firm and browned.

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