Easter is right around the corner and it brings back all kinds of memories for me. Leaving carrots for the Easter Bunny, waking up to baskets full of candy, and always a huge celebration meal. After three boys, my mother made sure I had lots of girly clothes to wear. So every year I got dressed up, a new dress with my Mary Janes, lacy anklets, white gloves, and of course an Easter bonnet! They were always fun holidays in our home with lots of laughter, but two Easters were extra special.
One year family friends of ours arrived for brunch at our house and they had gifts for each of us children (I have three older brothers). As a joke, they had bought four ducklings and presented them to us. We were thrilled and my parents were not. While we were deciding which duckling belonged to each of us, my parents were trying to figure out how to house and take care of them. They were such funny pets. They would come running whenever they heard the watering hose and they followed my mother around the yard when she was gardening. They always traveled together, walking in a line one behind the other. Eventually they got too big for us to manage and we took them to a local pond where they could live freely.
The second special Easter was a year when we were having some work done on the house. The night before we would set out some carrots for the Easter Bunny to nibble on while he filled our baskets. Then in the morning we would race down the hall to see what he had given us. This year I looked all over the place, but couldn’t find my basket anywhere. I searched and searched, then went to ask my parents. They told me to go look again, asking me if there was anything unusual in the kitchen.
The only thing in there was a huge coil of chicken wire the workmen had left … it didn’t occur to me that they never would have left that inside the house. Then I heard a noise and peeked over the edge of the wire and there was an adorable little white bunny wiggling its nose at me! I was so excited, but I couldn’t reach it and had to get my parents to lift it out for me. It was the softest, sweetest thing I had ever seen and I fell in love immediately. By the way, it turned out that the wire was going to be used to build the rabbit hutch. What a smart Easter Bunny to give us everything we needed to take care of the bunny he left for me!
Like most families, we had our traditions for each holiday. At Easter we always had a huge ham for dinner and I looked forward to it for weeks. My mother and I would dress it in the morning, then it would bake slowly all day, filling the house with wonderful aromas. As everyone did in the 1950’s and 60’s, my mother decorated our ham with a brown sugar coating topped with yellow pineapple rings and bright red Maraschino cherries. When she brought it to the table, we would fight over the cherries while my father carved off slices for us. The hams in those days weren’t processed as most are today. There were no preservatives added. Believe me, they were incredibly delicious, tender, and moist without being injected with extra water. Whenever I smell a ham baking, I look around for my Easter basket, LOL!
When I think of an Easter ham, it just wouldn’t be the same without the fruit on the top, but I have updated the sweet glaze. I got inspiration from a wonderful chef, Virginia Willis and her cookbook, Bon Appetit Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking. Virginia is a southern gal, a native of Georgia, she grew up in a house where both her mother and grandmother were consummate cooks. She is also a classically trained French chef and in this book, she marries the two halves of her culinary training to create what she calls “refined Southern cuisine.” It is full of all the Southern classics you would expect like red beans and rice and fried okra, but she also has French specialties like Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin. Each chapter starts out with some interesting bits of history and unusual facts about the topic. She includes helpful hints such as how to cut up a chicken and making a brine. She shares delightful memories from her childhood and as you read, you come to feel as though Virginia is one of your friends. If you are a fan of classic American foods and Southern specialties, you will love this book.
To go along with the ham I wanted to share a recipe that combines a classic technique with somewhat healthier ingredients. Scalloped potatoes often accompany baked ham and it is a combination that I love. Today’s recipe combines Yukon Gold potatoes with sweet potatoes in a luscious, creamy sauce flavored with fresh herbs. It can be made ahead which makes it easy to reheat while the ham is baking. If you have a food processor, it makes really quick work of slicing all the potatoes. Filling and comforting, it is the perfect side dish for any holiday meal.
For those who don’t eat ham, here is a link to my Horseradish-Crusted Prime Rib of Beef. I don’t want anyone to feel left out. And don’t worry, next week I will have some Passover dishes to share too!
No matter how you celebrate the spring holidays, I hope you have wonderful family and friends to share them with. Have a wonderful weekend – Happy Festive Friday!!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Half hams are labeled butt and shank. The butt end comes from the upper thigh and is rounded. Shank halves come from the lower portion of the leg and have a tapered end. Buy a shank if you can. Look for bone-in hams because they have deeper flavor and you can use the bone to make soup with afterward. Though many hams are labeled “fully cooked,” “ready-to-eat,” or “heat-and-serve,” heat them to an internal temperature of 140°F for more flavor.
Kitchen Skill: How to Carve a Bone-In Shank Half Ham
Working on a cutting board with a moat to collect juices, cut several thin slices off one side of the ham; set the ham on this leveled surface to stabilize it. Starting at the narrow end, make vertical 1/4-inch slices, cutting down to the bone. When all the slices are made, turn the knife and slice horizontally, running the knife along the length of the bone. Repeat this process 2 or 3 more times, transferring slices to a warmed platter as they are removed from the bone.
For step-by-step photos for this type of ham as well as other shapes, click here.
- Canola oil
- 1/2 bone-in, ready-to-eat ham (5 to 6 lb), preferably shank end (tapered rather than round)
- Whole cloves
- 1 can pineapple rings packed in juice, drained; juice reserved
- Maraschino cherries
- 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup cane syrup or molasses
- 1/2 cup bourbon
- 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
- Juice from canned pineapple
- Freshly squeezed orange juice, if needed
- Set rack to lowest position and preheat oven to 350°F. Brush a large roasting pan with some of the oil.
- Prepare the Ham: Remove the skin and most of the fat layer. Place the ham in the roasting pan. Using a sharp knife, make 1/4-inch deep cuts across the top of the meat in a diamond pattern. Place a whole clove in the centers of the “diamonds.” Arrange the pineapple rings over the meat, using toothpicks to secure them. Place cherries in the centers of the rings, using toothpicks to secure them as well.
- Prepare the Glaze: In a saucepan, combine the sugar, cane syrup, bourbon, and mustard, whisking together. Measure the juice from the canned pineapple and if needed, add enough orange juice to make 1/4 cup. Stir into the other ingredients. Cook over medium heat until melted, whisking until smooth.
- Pour warm glaze over the top of the ham and place in preheated oven. Cook until an instant read thermometer inserted in the center reaches 140°F, between 2 and 3 hours, depending on size of ham. Use a long handled spoon and baste with the juices from the bottom of the pan every 30 minutes. If the top browns too quickly, tent loosely with foil to avoid burning.
- When done, remove from the oven and set aside to rest, tented with foil, for about 30 minutes. Use two large meat forks to move the ham from the pan to a cutting board. Remove the cherries and pineapple rings placing them around the perimeter of a warmed serving platter. Make sure all of the toothpicks are discarded.
- Using a long carving knife, cut the ham into 1/4-inch thick slices and arrange them in the center of the platter. (See directions under “Kitchen Skill” above.) Pour the pan juices into a warmed gravy boat and serve alongside the ham if desired.
- Yield: 10 to 12 servings
- 1-1/2 lb medium Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1-1/2 lb medium Garnet red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams)
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp minced fresh Italian parsley
- 1 tbsp minced fresh rosemary
- 1 tbsp minced fresh sage
- 1 tbsp minced fresh thyme
- 1-1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1-1/4 cups (packed) coarsely grated Gruyère cheese (about 5 oz)
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter a 9x13-inch baking pan; set aside.
- Fill a large bowl with cold water. Peel both kinds of potatoes and cut into 1/8-inch-thick rounds. As you cut them, place the slices in the bowl of water.
- In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, butter, and garlic and bring to simmer. Remove from the heat.
- Mix all herbs in small bowl. Mix sea salt and black pepper in another small bowl. Set up an assembly line with the baking pan and all ingredients in their respective bowls.
- Drain potatoes and pat dry with clean kitchen towels. Spread half of potatoes in prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with half of salt-pepper mixture, then half of herb mixture. Sprinkle with half of cheese. Repeat with remaining potatoes, salt-pepper mixture, herb mixture, and cheese. Pour cream mixture over gratin, pressing lightly to submerge potatoes as much as possible.
- Can be made up to this point up to 6 hours ahead *. Cover with plastic wrap and chill. Remove plastic wrap before baking.
- Cover gratin tightly with foil. Bake 30 minutes. Uncover; bake until top of gratin is golden and most of liquid is absorbed, about 25 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes; serve.
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
- * You can assemble and bake this up to 2 days ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated. It won’t be quite as good as a freshly baked dish, but still quite delicious.