10 November 2008

Gigi Louise's Cornbread Dressing

Gigi Louise used to mercifully make an extra pan of this dressing for family holiday gatherings because we'd all get so forlorn and overcome with malaise when she had to tell us the leftovers were all gone. So naturally I make extra as well. I like to leave my small cast iron skillet out handy so folks can heat up a little at their whim. Cast iron makes it all crispy golden and eternally inspiring.

Now, I warn you. This is one of those real gen-u-ine granny recipes, the kind where granny assumes you're as intuitive a cook as she is so she doesn't fuss with jotting down the details. You know, piffly trifles like how much broth to use. So when you get stumped you ring granny up for the requisite empirical data and she helpfully drawls, "Well, honey, you know. Just keep tipping more broth in till it looks right fallin' off a spoon." And... that would be roughly how much? Just a ballpark, a clue, anything... "Oh, just stick your hand down in it, honey, and if it runs through your fingers kinda thick-like but not runny exactly, you're about right." Yes, this actually happened to me.

But, oh, is it ever worth navigating the guesswork. Last year,
Claire made our Thanksgiving feast and she managed to get it to fall off the spoon just right on her first try. So hey, muster your courage and give it a go.

When we make it for Thanksgiving here in a few days, I'll try to take some helpful pictures of the kinda-thick-like-but-not-runny-exactly stage to post here for you. But then again that might take all the fun out of it for you.

Gigi Louise's Cornbread Dressing

2 large pans of cornbread
(NOTE: Do not use sweet or cakey cornbread! Optimally, it should be baked in cast iron skillets for good crust. Gigi's cornbread recipe is here. Note that her recipe makes a small pan of cornbread, so for the 2 large pans needed for this dressing you'd need to make two double recipes. You can make the cornbread a couple of days in advance - the dressing is improved by slightly dry, stale bread. You can actually bake the cornbread a month in advance and freeze it.)

2 hamburger buns, toasted (or 4 slices of toasted white bread)

1 big onion, chopped

2 cups chopped celery (about 1/4 to 1/2 inch dice)

4 beaten eggs

1 T sage*

black pepper to taste (Be very generous! Even more generous than that!)

salt if needed (this depends largely on the amount of salt in your broth)

Broth - Gigi told me she cooked her Thanksgiving turkey with one quart of water in the bottom of the roaster (I assume she used a rack) so she would have a head start on broth, and then she supplemented with canned broth until she had enough to make the dressing "a bit soupy." I usually make the dressing ahead of the turkey, though, so I use all chicken broth. I buy the free range organic broth that comes in aseptic boxes by the case at Costco. Swanson's canned broth is good also.

A large glass Pyrex casserole dish, buttered, will give this a good crunchy crust on the bottom and edges.

Cook at 350 until firm and golden on top -- at least an hour.

*If you're serving nursing mothers, you should warn them about the sage in the dressing, as it can significantly limit breast milk production.

Gigi Louise's Cornbread

I think my bones must be made of cornbread. Wonder how far back up the old family tree you'd have to go to find a woman who didn't make cornbread? Gigi's was perfection. It had a substantial, crunchy crust that smelled like hot buttered popcorn. A hearty, toothy texture -- nothing cake-ish about it. Never sweet and never foo-foo'd up with corn or green chiles. No no no.

I've flirted around with all sorts of cornbread recipes. When I'm tired or pressed for time, I confess without shame that I whip out a package of Morrison's Corn Kit mix. Surprisingly good and not expensive. But this is a purely psychological boost -- it's really no harder to make from scratch.

I prefer an organic stone ground yellow meal from non-genetically modified corn, which, thankfully, is getting easier to find these days in stores like Whole Foods and Central Market. Sometimes I mix some flour in with the cornmeal, but generally I like a southern style corn-rich batter. And being the first native of the southwest on a solidly southern family tree, I have to whip out a batch made from southwestern blue corn every now and then just for the Dr. Seuss-ish spunk of it.

(For any beginners out there, it's handy to know there's a difference between 'corn meal' and 'corn meal mix' even though the packages can look very similar. Be sure to read labels!)

Gigi would also sometimes use a mixture of cornmeal and flour, but she told me she liked it best with cornmeal only. She said the very best she ever made was when she could get her hands on some freshly ground corn and make it right away the same day it was ground. I've done that a time or two with my grain mill. Wow. That and some butter and a big glass of tea... most salubrious.

Gigi Louise's Cornbread

corn oil for the skillet

1 cup corn meal (plus extra for priming skillet)
1 T sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

1 large egg
1/2 c buttermilk (plus more to adjust batter thickness)

butter, for serving

Preheat oven to 425.

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Mix egg and buttermilk and stir into dry ingredients. If the batter seems too stiff or thick, add a little buttermilk. It should be a little thicker than pancake batter, but thinner and lighter than muffin batter.

Prime a 6-8 inch cast iron skillet as per note below.

Pour batter into the primed skillet. Check at 18-20 minutes; cornbread is ready when the top is dark golden yellow. (A double recipe will need a 10 inch skillet and will probably need a half hour or more in the oven.)

*Priming the skillet: Pour a shallow layer of corn oil in the bottom of your cast iron skillet and swirl it around so that the oil coats the sides. Use your fingers if necessary. Put the pan in the preheated oven for a few minutes to thoroughly heat the oil, then carefully remove the hot pan from the oven and quickly sprinkle a light layer of stone ground corn meal in the hot oil. Put the pan back in the oven for a couple of minutes, until the cornmeal starts to smell like popcorn. Now carefully pull the hot pan out of the oven, quickly pour in the batter and return the skillet to the oven. This is an old trick that will give your cornbread that fantastic crisp, aromatic crust.