Most people consider creativity an essential element in cooking, but I think it should be discouraged in the home kitchen. Remember your audience. You’re cooking for people you know on intimate terms, and a big mistake (like putting sweet pickles in a cheesecake) will mean you’re going to have to hear about it for a very long time, and not in complimentary language. Culinary creativity is best left to those Food Network geniuses who when given turnips as a competitive ingredient are provided with Corsican prawns, Kobe beef and Kurdistani apples to shore up their efforts. Between you and me, I’d like to see what they’d do with a few skinny pork chops, a can of green beans and a jar of crunchy peanut butter. (Okay, I’ll throw in a loaf of bread, too).
But kitchen innovation emphasizing technique rather than ingredients can have impressive results, especially when you’re dealing with what’s familiar. For example, consider Jules Alciatore, who according to Howard Mitcham took a long look at his oysters Florentine, told his chef to put the sauce on top of the oysters (instead of vice-versa, as the French did) then throw them in a salamander. Nowadays, you can’t go into a restaurant along the Gulf without being offered some dim, horrendous version of oysters Rockefeller, usually with enough Pernod to choke a horse . . . but done well, it’s magical.
This innovation is much more domestic and really not that novel, but just as simple: Bake dressing in a muffin pan. It’s easy to do, and the result is a morsel that’s eaten handily and stored easily. These muffins are great for a holiday gathering, and kids love them. I like to top some of them with a bit of whole-berry cranberry sauce. They also look good piled on a pretty plate alongside your other buffet items. They take a little more care than simply pouring your dressing into a casserole dish as is usually done, but they more than make up for the initial effort by freeing up space in the refrigerator and freezer, space you’ll no doubt need for other holiday leftovers. You can make these savory muffins days before your event, freeze them warm when needed.
Use a good dressing recipe; mine involves leftover cornbread, onions, celery, cooked chicken and/or mild sausage, a good stock, a bit of butter and eggs. I do not put bell pepper in my dressing because it overpowers everything else, nor do I use garlic. I go heavy on the sage (less if I use sausage), with enough basil, thyme and rosemary to stand out. Oregano tends to make dressing bitter, so I don’t use it. Do not chop your onions or celery too finely because they provide a good texture, especially the celery. Make sure you have plenty of moisture, a thick, wet batter. It’s a good idea to add an extra whipped egg blended well in your basic recipe, which should have about one egg to two cups of batter. Salt and pepper to taste, add enough sage to stand out. I use neither oregano nor rosemary for an accent, though thyme is acceptable. Use a cooking spray to oil the muffin tin. Spoon the mixture into the cups. Fill to the top, since these do not rise as much as a bread muffin would. Place your pans in the middle rack of the oven and bake at 350 until the tops are firm and the edges have just begun to brown, about 20 minutes. Top with whole berry cranberries when they’re about half-way done. Brush with melted butter and let them cool before taking them from the pan (use a fork) and removing the paper. Store for later and reheat on a cookie sheet in a warm oven before bringing to the table.