I grew up eating dressing at Thanksgiving, not stuffing. During the holidays, the term “stuffing” is reserved for a turducken, which is a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck, and finally, stuffed inside a deboned turkey. This may seem utterly absurd, but I think it reveals a Cajun’s sense of humor quite well. Stuffing is never an option during the holidays. The matriarchs of my clan know beyond a shadow of a doubt this splendid side dish tastes better as it bakes on the side of the turkey, not inside, like God intended. Our turkeys are either smoked on the barbecue or baked in a large bladder-like bag, which allows the aromatics from celery, onions and herbs to swirl and twirl around the turkey.
For a while, I thought I was missing out on something special as every Thanksgiving feast in every Thanksgiving movie I ever saw had a mountain of golden breadcrumbs spilling out of a beautifully bronzed bird. As with all things commercial, the glitter inevitably fades and all that’s left is a void, in the case of stuffing, a bland void. Also, the cooks in my family reckon a pound of breadcrumbs lodged right smack dab in the middle of the bird means the turkey won’t cook properly, and an undercooked bird will put a damper on anyone’s holiday. These indiscretions are never spoken of but instead silently sidestepped.
I remember watching my mother prepare her delicious dressing. She would sneak some of the golden drippings from the roasting pan as the turkey rests under blankets of aluminum foil and kitchen towels covered in a strawberry print. She carefully combines cornbread, aromatics and bits of meat from the turkey’s wing until it reaches her ideal consistency, and this glorious pile of dressing is baked to perfection and is served at the right hand of the turkey. It’s creamy on the inside and crisp on the outside, just as it should be. Norman Rockwell wasn’t Southern, bless his heart. Maybe if he was Southern, the American standard might be smoking or deep-frying the big bird with dressing on the side for the holidays, or perhaps a turducken…
Bacon Cornbread & Spicy Sausage Dressing
Note: This dressing combines my favorite elements of a lovely dressing: pork, cornbread, and crispy bits. Also, you can double the bacon cornbread recipe and make it ahead of time. That way, the cornbread will be done and dusted and will not take any precious real estate in your oven day of, and you can serve the extra batch of cornbread for breakfast with some whipped butter and coffee to hold you over until the big meal!
For the Cornbread:
4 strips thick-cut bacon, finely chopped
2 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 ¼ cups buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 450° F
Preheat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to for at least 10 minutes.
Put the bacon in a small skillet and cook over medium-low heat, until the fat is rendered and the bits of bacon are crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bits of bacon onto a paper towel to drain. Reserve the fat in the skillet. (You should have about 5 tablespoons of bacon fat. If you don’t have enough fat, make up the difference with melted unsalted butter.)
Combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and bacon bits in a medium bowl. Combine 4 tablespoons bacon fat, buttermilk, and egg in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine.
Move the 10-inch skillet from the oven, placing it heat on the stove over high heat. Add the reserved 1 tablespoon bacon fat and swirl to coat the bottom and sides of the skillet. Pour in the batter, distributing it evenly. It should sizzle!
Bake the cornbread for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and flip the cornbread in the skillet. This step stops the bottom of the cornbread from getting too dark and also allows the top to get nice and crispy as it cools completely in the cast-iron skillet.
For the Dressing:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing baking dish
1 cornbread recipe, broken into 1-inch pieces (4½ cups), recipe above
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ pound pork sausage, casings removed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon fresh sage, finely chopped
1½ teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1½ teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1½ cups chicken broth, plus more if needed
1 large egg
2 tablespoons Tabasco Pepper Sauce or homemade pepper sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven 250°F
Butter a large rimmed baking sheet and scatter cornbread in a single layer onto the baking sheet. Bake, stirring often and rotating halfway through, until dried out, about 1 hour. Let cool. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Increase the oven temperature to 350°F
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage and red pepper flakes. Break up the sausage with a wooden spoon, until browned, 8-10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with cornbread.
Melt butter in same skillet with the sausage drippings; add onion, celery, garlic, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until softened and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add to mixing bowl with the cornbread and sausage.
Grease 10-inch cast-iron skillet or 9-inch ceramic dish.
Whisk broth, egg and pepper sauce in a small bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Gently fold into cornbread and sausage mixture until thoroughly combined and the cornbread soaked up almost all of the liquid, taking care not to mash the cornbread too much. The dressing should be moist (but not soggy!), so add a few more tablespoons of broth to the mixture if it looks dry. Transfer to greased pan. Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove foil and bake until the top is browned and crisp, 25-30 minutes. Serve hot!