Easter is a holiday of great food tradition. The breaking of the Lenten fast has always made for a feast of epic proportions. Ham and lamb reign supreme and sweets of all kinds are shared among families. There is even a bunny that leaves chocolate in baskets at your home and hides decorative eggs for children to find. All of it says celebrate!

And, while there are some great ethnic dishes, I think the traditional ham dinner of New England is hard to beat. It is simple to prepare, feeds a crowd of people and lends itself to some great leftover dinners.

I give you my tried and true recipe for cooking a cured ham as well as a great recipe for a fresh ham, an often overlooked cut that is one of my favorites.

Add asparagus or peas, parslied red potatoes and a spring salad with pears and the feast is yours. Of course, you will need to have some pastel colored dessert as well as a lime jello and cottage cheese salad or an ambrosia salad to maintain the true New England tradition.

The Italian tradition I grew up with celebrates this season and the holiday of Easter with a great deal of cooking. You not only cook for yourself but the tradition extends to gifts of food for friends and relatives. Over the years ‘who cooks what’ becomes an unspoken entity. Aunt Mary always makes the ham pie, Aunt Rose does the cheesecake and everyone waits for Aunt Jo’s sweet rice pie to appear at the front door. Italian cooks are busy at this time of year.

Ham Advice

Cured Ham: There is a huge range of products in this category. Most hams that you buy at the supermarket are wet cured or brine cured. This means they are submerged or injected with a solution (salt, sugar, nitrates, phosphates etc…) and then either cooked or smoked. This creates a product that is easy to cook (it really does not require cooking per se, but to glaze it and heat it, an oven is required.) I find the best hams in this wet cured category are labeled ‘ham with natural juices’ then comes the ‘ham with water added’ and then the ‘ham and water product’ (not recommended for an Easter dinner.) Spiral cut hams tend to get dried out in the oven and if you like the convenience of this type of ham just take care with how long you cook it.

I prefer a lightly smoked ‘ham with natural juices’, but it can be a little hard on your pocketbook. Get the ham you can best afford and concentrate on cooking it properly.

A dry cured ham (the country ham of the south) is made by rubbing the fresh meat with a mixture salt plus other ingredients and aging it without adding any water. Although it is a wonderful product, it is not the ham to use for Easter dinner.

Since a cured ham is almost always ‘cooked and ready to eat’ when you buy it, you do not need to worry about the length of time you have it in the oven, but you do want the glaze you have used to crust and flavor the ham and you want the inside to be piping hot.

Use a 325 to 350 degree oven and cook a 10 to 12 pound ham for about 2 – 3 hours, a half ham for 1 ½ to 2 hours or a spiral cut ham for 1 to 1½ hours. These cooking times are for a bone-in ham which I recommend.

Fresh Ham: This is an uncured leg of pork (the ‘ham’) and is really just a fresh pork roast. It makes an absolutely delicious roast and is a very underused cut of meat. The reason for this is the size of the beast. It can be huge and intimidating on the butcher shelf. Don’t let the size scare you – if it is too huge for your size celebration just have the butcher cut it in 2 pieces with the big bandsaw and freeze the excess for another feast.

This cut needs a long cook time. Plan ahead. A whole bone in leg should cook in a roasting pan for at least 6 to 8 hours. A half leg for around 4 to 5 hours. The oven should be set at 300 to 325 degrees. Again I prefer a bone-in cut of meat.

Simple Glazed Ham with Mustard Sauce

I watched the chefs at my family’s restaurant prepare this ham at Easter for years. It is simple and delicious. They used a wet cured, gently smoked ham, but you can use any ham in this recipe with good results.

  • 1 whole bone in ham (can use a half ham)
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1cup cider vinegar
  • 1 quart apple cider
  • 12 cloves
  • 1 cup mustard (any style)

All hams look a little different and although you can remove some of the fat and skin from your ham it is a good idea to leave a little to protect the ham when it is cooking. This protective layer will crisp up when cooked and create a luscious outer coating on the finished product.

Score a diamond pattern into the fatty top of the ham (½ to ¾ inch deep slices) and rub the mustard over all of the ham. Put the ham in your roasting pan. Place a clove in each diamond and slowly pour the vinegar over the top of the ham. Pour the sugar in the center of the top of the ham. Do not distribute the sugar – just let it sit there in a pile. You can do this up to an hour or two before you cook the ham. When you are ready to cook the ham slowly pour ½ cup of the cider over it on top of the sugar trying not to disturb the sugar too much.

Pour the rest of the cider into the bottom of the pan. If it doesn’t look like enough liquid in the pan add some water.

Cook in a 350 degree oven for about 2-3 hours. Baste every half hour by pouring the liquid from the pan over the ham with a large spoon. If the liquid gets low add a little water. There should always be a couple of inches of liquid in the bottom of the pan. If the ham is getting too cooked on top, place a piece of foil over the ham for the rest of the cooking.

Your ham is done when the interior temperature reaches 145 degrees. Place the ham on a platter with foil over it until ready to slice and serve.

Mustard Sauce: Strain all the pan drippings into a large saucepan. Let them sit for a few minutes and with a ladle carefully take as much of the clear fat as you can from the top. In a cup mix some flour and butter (½ cup of each) until smooth. Add it to the dripping and heat until thick. Thin the sauce with a little cider and add a couple of tablespoons of mustard. Serve with the ham.

Fresh Ham

This roast needs long cooking and will require that you plan ahead so you don’t have to take it out of the oven before it’s done. You won’t believe how succulent and richly flavored this fresh ham will be. A light sauce of the pan drippings is all you need to complete the dish.

  • 1 whole or half fresh ham (bone in)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup coarse ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • ½ cup mustard
  • 1 quart apple cider

Remove some of the fat and skin from the roast and score a diamond pattern on top. Mix the mustard, sugar, pepper and salt and rub over the top of the ham. Place on a rack in a roasting pan with the quart of cider and 2 cups of water in the bottom. Set aside and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Roast for 20 minutes in the hot oven and reduce the temperature to 300 degrees. Baste the ham with the liquid in the bottom of the pan and cover with foil. Continue roasting for another 5 to 6 hours, basting it occasionally. Do not let the pan dry out in the oven – add water or cider if necessary. Take the roast out of the oven and let it sit for at least ½ hour before slicing.

While it is sitting, pour off the pan drippings and let them sit for a few minutes. Skim off some of the fat with a ladle and make a light sauce with the simple butter and flour roux I described in the cured ham recipe above.