November 29th, 2005

Seems like everybody’s writing about their Thanksgiving dressing. Leigh Ann’s was a success, but Sue’s was cursed. (And that’s strange, because Sue’s the cook in the family. Who else do you know who can make pork candy?) I too made dressing this year. On the morning of the Auburn-Alabama game, I went to the grocery store to get popcorn because I’d promised Summer we’d make stove-top popcorn to eat while we watched the Tigers thump Alabama. While I was at the store, I saw cans of chicken broth, and I decided I’d mix up some dressing before the game as a pre-Thanksgiving experiment with a new (for me) dressing recipe.

I have two dressing recipes. One is the recipe that I got from Granny by way of Kay. The other is the recipe I got from Granny by way of Dad. The recipe I got from Dad is the one I’ve been making for most of the past fifteen years. Back in 1990 I was working a contract in Boston and sharing an apartment with Andy Mager. When Thanksgiving rolled around that year, it was probably the first year I’d spent the holiday away from home, and with no one around to make dressing for me, I decided to cook my own. Because I didn’t have the recipe, I called Dad to ask him to look it up for me. He didn’t have a copy handy, so he tried to recall it on the spot. What he came up with worked well, and I’ve used it ever since.

Last year, Kay mailed us each a copy of Granny’s dressing recipe. The recipe Kay sent is different in a few respects from Dad’s version. The most notable way is that the quantities aren’t as specific. When Dad and I pieced together the dressing recipe over the phone, Dad gave me the quantities in cups: 5 cups each of cornbread crumbs and bread crumbs. On Kay’s recipe the cornbread is specified in pones, and the bread as a number of slices and a number of biscuits. Other quantities are different, too: Dad’s estimate of the amounts of sage and poultry seasoning are twice what are listed in Kay’s version, and the quantity of butter and eggs about half. Finally, Kay’s recipe has a can of soup (cream of chicken, I think), which isn’t in Dad’s version.

This year I wanted to try Kay’s version of the recipe, but it wasn’t clear to me how big a pone of cornbread is. Is it a small pone made from one cup of corn meal in a seven inch skillet, or a large one made from two cups of corn meal in a ten inch skillet? I didn’t know, so instead of using Kay’s directions for the volume of crumbs, I used Dad’s. I used Kay’s directions for everything else but the spices, where again I stuck with Dad’s. I also added the can of soup as per Kay’s recipe.

In hindsight, mixing the recipes like this was a mistake.

The flavor was very good, but the dressing never got firm and solid. It had a kind of mushy consistency. Edible, and very tasty, but not as appetizing as a good dressing should be. I think the problem was the ratio of butter to crumbs. If a pone in Kay’s recipe is a small pone, then the amount of crumbs in Kay’s recipe is one and a half to two times the amount of crumbs in Dad’s. Kay’s version of the recipe calls for two sticks of butter, whereas Dad’s version only calls for one. So when I used Dad’s amount of crumbs, but Kay’s amount of butter, I got twice as much butter as normal, and that’s the only thing I can think of that would cause the dressing not to get firm.

Something else I didn’t do this year was I didn’t put any chicken in the dressing. I usually include the chicken, but because this dressing was “experimental”, I decided to opt out of the chicken and used canned broth instead.

Next time around, I’m going go back to Dad’s recipe again. Of course, I never make it exactly according to the directions. Over the years I’ve developed my own tweaks to the recipe, most notably decreasing the amount of celery and increasing the amount of onions. I’ve also wondered whether some garlic might be a good addition. The only problem I’ve ever had with Dad’s recipe is that sometimes the dressing is a bit too crumbly. Seeing how Kay’s recipe calls for four eggs instead of just one, I think maybe next time I’ll put two or three eggs in Dad’s recipe to get it to cook to a little firmer texture.

I’ve been thinking about Sue’s curse. You don’t need to dance around Granny’s front yard by the moonlight to cure your dressing curse, Sue, you just need to relax with the spices. The recipe I’ve been making all these years has twice the amount of spices, both sage and poultry seasoning, but about half the volume of bread crumbs. That means my spice ratio is four times what Kay’s recipe calls for. In other words, too much sage doesn’t necessarily ruin the recipe. On the other hand, maybe my dressing would be too strong for your taste; I’m not suggesting you set out to quadruple the amount of sage you’re using, just that you don’t need to be so timid with it.

The key to getting the spices right is to add most of what the recipe calls for, then start tasting the batter, and keep adding spices until the flavor is right. What I do to help with this is to heat my broth before I mix it in. I heat it nearly to boiling, at least to a good simmer, and then add the broth as the last thing before tweaking the spices. By adding hot broth to cold crumbs and other cold ingredients, you get a batter that’s warm enough to really bring out the flavor of the spices. Then you add a bit of this and a bit of that until everything’s just right.

8 Responses to “Dressing”

  1. Sue Says:

    Thanks for the advice. Like I mentioned in my blog, it’s in the cooking for others that I become indecisive. I think of myself as one who prefers more spice, so I tend to overcompensate by underspicing when cooking for a group. I think that comes from cooking for picky and generally critical people. I still think I’ll take next year off.

  2. Jim Says:

    But you can’t try to please everyone or you’ll end up pleasing no one. Cook what tastes good to you, then know that it’s good and be confident in serving it.

  3. Leigh Ann Says:

    “Kay’s” recipe is really Granny’s. The best I remember, one year we made it (when Granny was there) and wrote it down as she did it. Kay typed it up and sent it out last year. The only thing different is that (I believe) Kay’s deciphering of the recipe calls for 4 cups of celery. It’s really 1 cup of celery, but over the years, someone checked off all the items and the 1 now looks like a 4!!! A pone is 1 cup of cornmeal, 1 tablespoon of flour, 2 eggs, milk, and a dash of salt. I make this dressing religiously every year and so far (knock on wood), it has turned out good. The one thing we (someone in the past as it’s written later) did add to Granny’s was the can of cream of chicken soup — a good addition, I think. I always add garlic salt or powder and onion salt or powder.

    And — SUE — WHO are you calling picky and generally critical??!?!?!

  4. Jim Says:

    “Kay’s” recipe is really Granny’s”

    I KNOW that – as I said, I got it “From Granny by way of Kay”. Duh.

  5. Jim Says:

    Oh, if the soup is not Gospel, then I definitely won’t use it. And no, I hadn’t noticed that four cups of celery was an alteration – that does seem like an awful lot. I did use garlic salt this year, but there’s nothing like honest-to-goodness real garlic. However, I’m not sure that dressing is the right place for garlic, and I don’t think I’ll try that change.

  6. Jim Says:

    “And — SUE — WHO are you calling picky and generally critical??!?!?!”

    Bit dog hollers. HA!

  7. Sue Says:

    Do I really have to name names?

  8. Leigh Ann Says:

    Ok, Ok…. so I have a problem reading. Yes, you did say ‘from Granny by way of Kay’!!

    The soup isn’t gospel… nope. I agree that dressing is probably not the right place for honest-to-goodness real garlic, but the salt (or powder) doesn’t hurt!

    Sorry, this ain’t the bit dog! Besides, I never heard a dog holler……