Since we moved back to the area where my wife was raised, it has been our pleasant duty to host Christmas dinner for her clan. Each year I have tried to prepare something a bit non-traditional: the first year it was individual Cornish game hens; the second, roast pork loin; last year, leg of lamb. This year I contemplated poaching a whole salmon but because Christmas is on Wednesday the fish, which would have been caught the previous week, would be getting a bit old. So, I have, of necessity as well as of fondness, turned to an old holiday stand-by: ham.
Choosing a ham is not as simple as one might think. In the United States two distinct types of ham are generally available: dry salt-cured country hams, most common in the South; and wet sugar-cured city hams, the sort usually found in your local supermarket. Both are most often smoked over hickory or apple wood. As a rule, country hams are sold raw and have to be soaked to remove some of the salt then thoroughly cooked. Besides a stronger flavor, these have the advantage of being non-perishable until soaked. City hams are nearly always sold fully cooked, needing only to be reheated and enhanced by whatever flavoring one desires. But, alas, not all city hams are the same. Many are labeled “ham and water product,” meaning that they can be up 49% water by weight, with 15% to 25% being most common. By all means look for a ham labeled “no water added.” It will be a bit more expensive but well worth it. Being sugar-cured, city hams have much less salt than their country cousins which can be a benefit for some people.
If you have decided on a city ham you have a few more choices to make. While country hams are generally sold whole weighing 15 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kilograms) city hams are usually sold as butt or shank halves. The former have a higher meat to bone ratio while the latter are considered tastier and are often less expensive. Most often I buy the latter because I like having plenty of bone to use for soups and stocks—which brings up the issue of boneless hams. Personally, I would never buy a boneless ham for two reasons: 1) the aforementioned soups and stocks, and 2) the fact that they are artificially formed ham-like products of dubious provenance. And finally, we come to spiral-sliced ham: just say no. I tried one once and it splayed out in the oven coming out dry and unattractive. Buy a decent slicer with the money you save.
Getting back to the matter at hand…although I am known—or more accurately, notorious—for springing new recipes on guests I thought that I should do a test run on the Christmas ham. This is the result.
Apple cider – 1 quart (1 liter)
Brown sugar – ½ cup (80 grams)
Mulling spices (adjust to taste)
Cinnamon, whole – 2-inch (50 mm) piece
Cloves, whole – 5 or 6
Nutmeg, ground – ¼ teaspoon (1 ml)
Juniper berries, bruised – 4 or 5
Orange zest or dried peel – ½ teaspoon (2 ml)
City ham, bone-in, butt or shank half – about 7 pounds (3 kilograms)
Note: I braised the ham in a large stock pot. If you use a roaster increase the amount of cider and mulling spices as needed to cover the bottom by about ½- to ¾-inch (1 to 2 cms).
Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C).
Warm the cider in a saucepan and dissolve the brown sugar in it. Add the mulling spices and simmer gently for a few minutes. Ideally, let the spices steep for a half hour or so before proceeding.
Place the ham, fat side up, on a rack in a suitable covered pot or roaster. Bring the cider and spices to a boil then pour over the ham. Cover and put into the hot oven for about 10 minutes per pound (20 minutes per kilogram) of ham. Baste with the cider from time to time.
Remove the ham from the stockpot and put it into a roasting pan reserving the cider (if using a roaster, remove the ham, pour off the cider, then return the ham to the pan). Increase the temperature of the oven to 375°F (190°C) and roast, basting often, until the internal temperature is 155°F (68°C).
Remove the ham to a platter and to rest for 15 or 20 minutes before serving. While the ham is resting, deglaze the roasting pan with the remaining cider. Strain into a bowl. Either dip the slices of ham in the juice before serving or allow your guests to nap their ham as they wish.