OPINION | FRONT BURNER: Cornbread dressing a must for Thanksgiving

Mammaw Bernie’s Cornbread Dressing (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and, of course, turkey are my must-haves for Thanksgiving dinner. I'm not picky about the turkey or the sweet potatoes — any will do — but the dressing must be my great grandmother's recipe and the cranberry sauce must be Ocean Spray. (I'm not saying canned cranberry sauce is better than homemade; only that I associate canned cranberry sauce with its perfect-for-slicing ridges and wobbly texture so closely with Thanksgiving that without it, the meal just doesn't feel complete. I am saying Ocean Spray is better than any other canned I've tried.)

Mammaw Bernie's dressing, especially when made by my mom, is the best I've ever had. Mammaw Bernie was my father's grandmother and my mom's family adopted the recipe after my parents married.

Like most family recipes, each family member who makes it does so just a little differently. When I make it, it always tastes just a little bit different from Mom's version — mine tends to be a bit coarser in texture and I never add enough sage. Also, I'm always trying new recipes for cornbread and freezing the leftovers to use in the dressing. Mom uses the same cornbread recipe every time — the same one she learned to make when she was 7 years old.

My aunt Phyllis doesn't cook with eggs, so she leaves them out of the dressing and its cornbread base. My Pawpaw Pat abhorred onions, so Granny Tommie always made a pan without them just for him (and the grandchildren who aspired to be just like him). Something my mom indulges to this day for her little and not-so-little ones.

Out of saltines? Use Ritz. Short a few slices of bread? Crumble in a biscuit or a hamburger bun.

Each time I make it to write about, I refine the written version just a bit, so if you have one of my previous columns with the recipe, don't be alarmed to see some minor tweaks. The version below makes enough to fill a 9-by-13-inch baking dish generously. I usually cut it in half or bake it in two smaller pans and freeze the extra for Christmas or whenever I'm craving dressing.

If your family doesn't have a cornbread dressing recipe or the one you have isn't as good as you think it could be, I highly recommend you give mine a try.

The dressing can be prepared up to the point of baking and refrigerated for up to 48 hours before baking or cooked and refrigerated for a few days or frozen for longer storage.

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Mammaw Bernie's Cornbread Dressing

  • 8 tablespoons butter, divided use
  • 1 onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 to 2 ribs celery, finely chopped (about ¾ cup)
  • 6 to 8 slices stale white bread, torn into pieces
  • 1 large pan cornbread, cooled and crumbled (about 8 cups)
  • 2 sleeves crackers (saltines or Ritz), finely crushed
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • Rubbed sage, to taste
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 small can evaporated milk
  • 6 to 8 cups chicken or turkey stock or broth, as needed

Heat oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees for fan-assisted baking). Generously coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or gratin dish or two smaller dishes with butter; set aside.

In a skillet over medium heat, melt 1 to 2 tablespoons butter. Add onion and celery and cook until onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Turn off heat, add the remaining butter to the skillet and let it melt in the residual heat.

In a very large bowl, combine cooked onions and celery (and the melted butter in the skillet), the bread, crumbled cornbread, crackers, salt (go easy if you're using salted broth), ½ to 1 teaspoon pepper, sage (I start with a scant tablespoon), eggs, evaporated milk and about 2 ½ cups of the broth. Mash mixture with a potato masher or mix using your hands. Add as much of the remaining broth as needed to reach the desired consistency. The mixture should be somewhat soupy, like chili.

(To be sure the seasoning is just right, cook a couple of tablespoons of the mixture in a little butter in the skillet you used for the onions and celery. Taste and add more salt, pepper or sage if desired.)

Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or gratin dish, cover with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes, remove foil and bake 30 minutes more or until golden brown and set in the center. Exact cooking time will vary based on the baking dish, a deeper dish will take longer, possibly as much as 30 minutes longer. Cooked dressing will keep, refrigerated for several days.

Makes about 12 cups.