Cast Iron

Mother's Soft and Light Southern ThanksgivingĀ Dressing

November  7, 2012
0 Ratings
  • Makes 1 9X13 pyrex dish worth
Author Notes

My mom always made the best southern dressing for Thanksgiving. It was light and soft and moist. It's made from a combination of homemade cornbread and bought white bread, and it always made our turkey day. The only thing I've changed a bit is the addition of a couple of turkey wings into the chicken broth, but otherwise this is Mom's famous dressing. You only got it at Thanksgiving. Or if you were dead. Once a deacon in her church said he was afraid his family might prematurely do him in to acquire Mrs. Carolyn's dressing. So far no humans have been harmed in the making of this recipe, but you never know.
This is my first recipe here. It's not really a recipe per se yet, more like an essay. I was asked by some friends for this recipe, as I'd given it to a few people last year and--well--word seems to have gotten around. I'm going to throw it up as is, and this Thanksgiving I'll try to write down exact amounts. As it stands now this is more of a well-fleshed-out outline, but hopefully it'll be a good enough guide for people to get started until I can come back to it.


What You'll Need
  1. Since this recipe doesn't directly involve your on-the-day turkey, you can start it two days ahead by making your broth for it. First, a day or two out, take a nice whole chicken, remove its giblets package, rinse out its cavity, pulling out any bits of liver and stuff that might affect the broth, and poach it on the stove in a large pot, just covered in cool water. Add in two big turkey wings to the poaching. This is my addition. Since the dressing will have its own celery and onions, etc., added later, this is a simple broth, with no carrots or anything. The turkey wings are to add some turkey flavor, which is what lets you get away with separating out the dressing from the bird, cooking of. But using all turkey wings can give a pretty pronounced turkey taste. Mom always liked to use chicken broth but I saw some extra turkey wings at grocery store before Thanksgiving a few years ago, and thought that would add something to the broth.
  2. Note: this is a broth, not a stock. There's no roasting of bones in the oven first. It's done for the ease of it, too, given how much there is to do in the kitchen that time of the year. But if you've got some homemade chicken stock put away, or want to roast the wings a bit first before you put them in with the chicken, knock yourself out. One warning: don't salt this broth yet. You just need bird-flavored liquid at this point, no other seasonings. So anyway, let the whole chicken + turkey wings thing come to a boil, boil for about five minutes, then turn it down to a simmer for a couple of hours until the meat falls off the bone. Remove bird bits and set aside. Set broth back on stove, crank up the heat to a medium or medium high, and boil it down an hour to further condense the broth. This will give you more flavor per ladle-full when you add it to the dressing later, and keep you from having too-watery of a mixture, as there are other wet ingredients that go in. Cool broth safely and store in fridge.
  3. The night before (you know, that night where you're making your significant spousal unit nuts by sending them to the store five times in a row), make them feel better by roasting a second whole chicken in the oven for dinner. This is mostly to sustain the cook through these trying times, but it's a great way to add a little more flavor to the dressing, too. It's optional but it does help boost and deepen the poultry factor.
  4. What I do is prep the bottom of my roasting pan with non-stick foil with the edges turned up a little. Then I roast a chicken. Nothing fancy, no spices, nothing shoved up under the skin. The only thing I do differently from my usual roast chicken is that I add a little water in the bottom of the pan about 30 minutes into the cooking. This is so the drippings don't burn. I don't add so much that the bird steams--just a little along the bottom, maybe 1/4 to 1/2 cup spread out over a large roaster? Note that I don't roast my chicken on a rack. This only works as I roast mine right against the pan--first 20 minutes with it laying on one of its sides (trussed), then I flip it and roast it 20 minutes on the other side, and finally it gets roasted 20 minutes or breast-up until done by temperature via instant read thermometer, ie 165F.
  5. By roasting it down in the pan, and using nonstick foil, I get to save all the nice fresh drippings and delicious crunchy bits (warning! Do not let the hungry and aggrieved spousal unit near this step, or you might have significantly fewer tasty brown bits should you, say, turn your back for a moment). I pour off the drippings and use a plastic spoonula to scrape off any fond (yay for nonstick foil); I put all this in a Corningware bowl (it's easy to warm up later that way in the microwave) and stick it in the fridge when it's cooled a little. That, or if I have too much to do to mess with a bird the night before, I'll make the chicken a week or two out and freeze the drippings, and thaw them the night before I need them.
  6. To review so far: since no turkey is being roasted yet, make homemade broth 2 days ahead. Poach one whole chicken on stove, with 2 big turkey wings added for turkey flavor. Don't salt or season with vegetables at all. When meat is falling off done, remove birds, strained broth back in pot, and boil down an hour or so to condense broth. Cool and put in fridge. Night before (or previously ahead of time and freeze drippings) roast another whole chicken in a roasting pan lined with nonstick foil right down against bottom of pan, adding little bit of water to pan 30 minutes in. Poured off drippings and fond. Put drippings into fridge or freeze if more than a day or so out.
  7. The same day before Thanksgiving (the day you make the Aggrieved Roast Chicken for supper so you can mine it for golden bits and drippings), you cook up some cornbread and prepare your white bread. Re the cornbread: make extra, as this will go a long way to un-aggrieving your spousal whinger when he finds you simply must have one more bar of cream cheese at 9:45pm. I make it mom's way. No Jiffy boxes for her (though hey I'll pop one of those in the oven on a busy weeknight in a heartbeat). An integral part of her dressing's lightness involves the way she cooks her cornbread. This is where being southern really does help, as you just whip out great-grandma's cast iron skillet. The one you fought your good-for-only-some-things cousins for in the will. That one. Lacking one, use a nice cast-iron enamel casserole like Le Creuset.
  8. Mom used only Martha White WHITE Self-Rising Corn Meal Mix. She only like the white mix, as she thought it made the dressing lighter-looking and she liked the white corn taste in it. Make up cornbread mix according to package directions, but using 3 eggs instead. Heat oven according to package, very hot, and preheat cast iron skillet in center of oven. Put a bare coating of oil in bottom of pan to heat up with it--a little bit of oil (lard, shortening, peanut oil--no low smoke point oils please). Pull out rack carefully! Carefully add wet batter to hot pan/oil. Be prepared for splatter and hot sizzling. Put back in oven and cook according to package directions. When done, remove, let set a few minutes in pan, then remove from pan and turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. Rinse, repeat, until you have 2 or 3 rounds of cornbread. This part you can wrap up well and freeze ahead of time. It's better to freeze them whole than to crumb them at this point.
  9. Also a day or so ahead, take some white sandwich bread and tear it into small pieces about 1/2" or so big. We use Sunbeam Old-Fashioned, as the thicker slices are easy to tear up. Now don't go getting your artisan on here. No baguettes or hearty white or challah either. Just plain old soft and fluffy 50s bread--the kind of thing some would eschew for a decent sandwich, yes. This white bread really acts to lighten up the cornbread and the dressing's texture. Break up a loaf or two of it, depending on how much you need. The birds will appreciate any leftover crumbs. You want to do this and put it in a bowl loosely covered with foil, and stir it gently around for a day or so to 'stale it up'. Or just start with stale white sandwich bread from the local stale bread store. You don't need to crumb it, just break it up. Once it gets wet in the mix it'll finish breaking up, no worries there, ha.
  10. Set aside some of the white bread pieces for later, btw. This is in case you get your final mixture too thin, you can pop in some more bread and/or cornbread. Also crumb up your cornbread into a bowl shortly before mixing up the dressing (not two days ahead so the finer crumbs don't dry out too much). It'll crumb up pretty well by hand. My dad always did this while watching tv, while sipping buttermilk and partaking of the odd piece or so. It's a memory.
  11. The eventual proportions of bread-to-cornbread in the dressing mix will be about 50-50, or maybe a little more cornbread than white bread, but not much more. The day you're mixing up the dressing: Wash 3-4 stalks of celery. Mince fairly small in food processor (I was the picky person in the family who didn't like big pieces of celery so blame me for that). Also it'll cook up faster and add to the fine texture of mix. Finely chop up a small or medium onion (or half a large one), set aside. Btw this part is pretty safe from the husband-grazer. Put a saucepan on stove. Ladle out a couple of cups of your cold broth (congealed gelatin and fat and all!) into it. Add 2 rounded teaspoons of Wyler's dry chicken bullion powder. This is all to layering the poultry flavors). Put in about 1/3 c of the minced celery. Let this all boil then cut down to a slow boil for about 15 minutes. Towards the end, add some minced onion and cook a few minutes more. Cool slightly (so you don't scramble the raw eggs later).
  12. Assemble ingredients for--um--assembly:
  13. broken-up and staled white bread
  14. cornbread crumbs
  15. warm chicken broth with veg and seasoning bullion
  16. some melted butter to taste, plus drippings from roast chicken if made
  17. lightly beaten eggs (about 4 per 9X13" dish)
  18. dry sage, poultry seasoning, and salt
  19. a 9X13" pyrex glass baking dish (don't use something thin that burns, or preferably not a dark dish)
  20. Well, that's about it. Mix that puppy. Mix bread and cornbread about half-and-half proportions. Go easy on salt and seasonings until the end. But overall don't be afraid to season it pretty well. Cook up a bit of the mix in a skillet and taste for seasoning. Just a little sage, as the poultry seasoning also has sage in it. Fgs use freshly-purchased poultry seasoning, not that stuff that's been there for 8 years behind the sticky orange extract and solidified onion powder. Mix should be fairly wet and sloppy. Like a loose concrete mix or a little more loose. Sorta soupy, sorta not, is the best description I got. Like quicksand? Add more broth or cornbread (you did reserve some, right?) if needed. Set aside a ladle-full of raw dressing in fridge to add to giblet gravy if you want. Fill dish 2/3 to 3/4 full, but no more. Cook in center of a 350F preheated oven for 30-45 minutes, with no foil, until done in center. It should still be still a little moist, not dry at all.

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