Thanksgiving Favorites Made-over (Part 1): Gluten-Free Cornbread Dressing

Are you game-planning your Thanksgiving menu yet?  One of my biggest challenges when we first embraced a gluten free, real foods lifestyle was figuring out how to make over our favorites, including the traditional Thanksgiving Day recipes we grew up enjoying.  

Cornbread dressing ranks high on my list of signature Thanksgiving dishes!  But the version I grew up eating was not gluten-free and included a few ingredients that we now avoid as part of a real, whole foods diet.  So when we began hosting our own family feast I made it my mission to recreate this family favorite, and thus came about the recipe I'm sharing with you today!  

If you aren't interested in the back story, skip ahead and scroll down to the recipe, "Meemaw's Cornbread Dressing."  Keep reading if you enjoy a little nostalgia and the stories behind recipes. ;-)
I grew up watching my grandmother ("Meemaw") make this dressing, looking on as she taste-tested and adjusted the seasonings.  Sometimes I helped her crack the eggs that went into it to ensure the right texture and creaminess.  Or I supervised the celery and onion boiling on the stove.
But mostly I enjoyed eating it!  And when I got married and the time came for us to start our own Thanksgiving traditions, I called Meemaw and asked her to walk me through her recipe step by step.   There was no written recipe to share because after decades of preparing it, she had it all in her head, and operated on habit, routine, and memory.  So as she dictated her process to me over the phone, I took copious notes!  

Now my grandmother was the classic, old-fashioned southern cook and made many things from scratch; but like many in her generation she also often relied on processed shortcuts in her casseroles and other dishes. The same held true for her dressing, and I learned that several of the ingredients she used were highly processed and contained gluten, including things like canned soups, canned biscuits or white bread, and a cornbread mix (as opposed to basic cornmeal).

I'm not above a shortcut, but I prefer to keep it as real and gluten-free as possible!  When it came time for me to prepare for our first Thanksgiving meal within this new dietary framework, Meemaw's cornbread dressing was first in my "make-it-over" list!

I operate on the principle that for every processed food in a recipe, there's a healthy swap you can either make yourself or find at a natural market.  Of course, figuring all of that out takes time, one of our biggest resources and often a major roadblock!  Ever said to yourself, "I just don't have time to go reinventing recipes!"?

No worries---I've got ya covered!  I've been making this recipe for the past 7 years, and it does not disappoint! It’s not grain-free, but it is gluten-free and made mostly from scratch without refined, processed food.  And for me that’s good enough on Thanksgiving Day!
Two important things you should know as you prepare:  first, this recipe is a little more involved, and I highly recommend starting the process at least 3 days before you plan to serve it.  Second, this dressing freezes well, so if you want to be on easy street the week of Thanksgiving, prepare it about a month or two in advance and freeze it.  Then thaw and reheat on Thanksgiving Day (or whenever you plan to serve it).

To give you an idea of how I break this down, here's my process:

One week before Thanksgiving
*Make chicken broth, and reserve 1-2 quarts for dressing and 1½ cups for homemade cream of chicken soup. Now that I know how to make broth with my Instant Pot, this goes so much faster!  I can easily make up to 6 quarts of broth in less than a day.  See my updated post here on making your own chicken bone broth.
The weekend before or on the Monday before Thanksgiving...
*Make a double-batch of gluten-free biscuits, enough both to feed your family at breakfast (or breakfast-for-dinner) and to add later to dressing.  Alternatively, you can use gluten-free bread; when short on time, I pick up a gluten-free loaf from Costco, Wegmans, or Trader Joes.  It's a bit of a compromise, but it's gluten-free. ;-)

2-3 days ahead 
*Chop, boil, and strain celery and onion; refrigerate.
*Make the cream of chicken and refrigerate. (See recipe below.)

The day before
*Make the cornbread.
*Crumble biscuits or bread, and reserve in a sealed container or Ziploc bag.

The day of
*Assemble ingredients and cook.
Meemaw’s Cornbread Dressing
(gluten-free with dairy-free option)
1 batch Louella’s Cornbread* (see notes and recipe below)
Whole chicken* (optional --see note below)
A couple of day-old homemade biscuits, crumbled OR breadcrumbs from a couple slices of dry gluten-free bread* (see note below) 
1 large onion, chopped* (or equivalent frozen chopped onion)
4-5 stalks celery, chopped*
Poultry seasoning to taste (I usually start with 1 tsp. and adjust from there)
Sage to taste  (same as above)
Salt and pepper to taste
4-5 eggs beaten 
Homemade chicken broth—I like to have 1-2 quarts available, although I don’t always end up using that much.  
The equivalent of 1 can homemade cream of chicken soup** (See recipe below.  If you're short on time, Pacific’s organic cream of chicken soup is a good gluten-free alternative.)
  • Cook and cool cornbread.
  • Cook chicken and reserve broth, or use already-prepared chicken broth. Rinse giblets and set aside (Do this step if you plan to make gravy from the chicken. If you choose to skip cooking a chicken you can use the giblets from the turkey.)
  • Boil onion and celery until soft; then drain and set aside. (I prefer to cook my onion and celery in chicken broth, but water also works.)
  • Crumble cornbread into a large bowl.
  • Crumble bread and add to cornbread.
  • Add cooked onion and celery to cornbread mix.
  • Season with poultry seasoning, sage, salt, and pepper.
  • Pour hot broth over cornbread and mix until mushy.
  • Taste and season more as needed.
  • Add cream of chicken, and stir in beaten eggs. It should be juicy. If it doesn’t seem juicy enough at this point I usually add more broth.
  • Tear chicken off bone and stir in (optional).
  • Pour into 9x13 glass casserole and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour.
*Other notes:
  • I like to prepare the cornbread and onion/celery in advance. It just seems to simplify the whole process!
  • Meemaw always cooked a whole chicken and used that broth, as well as the meat from it, in her dressing.  We usually serve our dressing as a side dish with turkey, so typically I don't add the meat.  But including the meat is a great option if you want your dressing to be the main dish. 
  • I prefer to have my homemade chicken broth ready to go ahead of time and heat it up before adding to the cornbread mixture.
  • If you opt to make your own gluten-free biscuits, I recommend making them in advance the weekend before Thanksgiving!  I like to make a double batch---serve some for breakfast on a Saturday morning, then reserve a couple biscuits to add to the dressing.  I make grain-free cassava biscuits, using the recipe on the back of Otto's cassava flour package.  In a pinch, I use Udi's or another store-bought gluten-free bread.
Louella’s Cornbread
(my gluten-free adaptation from the recipe in Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader)

½ cup bacon drippings, lard, coconut oil, or butter (I’ve used all of the above with equal success!)
½ cup GF flour blend (I use either Namaste all-purpose or Bob’s Red Mill 1-1 gluten-free baking flour blend)  
1 ½ cups cornmeal
1 Tablespoon honey
1-½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
2 T. plus ¾ tsp. baking powder
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ cups buttermilk OR raw milk soured with lemon juice—whisk 1½ T lemon juice into 1½ cups of milk and let sit for at least 5 minutes.  (If you're dairy-free, swap out the buttermilk with cashew milk or coconut milk and follow the same souring process.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Pour the bacon drippings (or other oil) into a 9-inch black iron skillet and heat in the oven for 3-5 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs, honey, and buttermilk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix well. Pour the hot bacon drippings/oil from the skillet into the batter and mix well. Immediately pour the batter into the hot skillet and return to the oven. Turn the temperature down to 350 degrees and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until browned. Remove from the oven and immediately turn the cornbread out onto a plate to serve.
Homemade Cream of Chicken Soup
Makes about 3 cups or the equivalent of 2 cans

1½ cups coconut milk (divided)
6 Tablespoons arrowroot starch
1½ cups chicken broth
½ tsp. poultry seasoning
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon real salt
¼ teaspoon parsley
Dash of paprika

1.  In a small bowl, whisk 1 cup of coconut milk with arrowroot starch until smooth, and set aside.
2.  In a medium saucepan combine the remaining 1/2 cup coconut milk with chicken broth, poultry seasoning, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, salt, parsley, and paprika. Bring to a boil.
3.  Stir arrowroot mixture again until smooth, then add to broth mixture. Stir continuously until it starts boiling.  Stir and cook for anther 1-2 minutes until thickened to desired consistency.

What's one of your family's signature Thanksgiving dishes?      

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