This Little Piggy Brings Back Memories

Thanksgiving dinner for my mom’s side of the family is about 30 people. My aunt who hosts makes a turkey. My other aunt brings a ham. My mom brings pies. Lots of other good food is brought by many. Me? Well I bring the relish tray :/

As a kid, most holidays the men in my family would watch TV and talk politics, but I would be in the kitchen with the women of the family watching them cook. You see, I love food; I love cooking. So even when asked to bring a relish tray 4 years ago I wanted to bring a next-level relish tray! I made mozzarella from scratch. I pickled beets.  I stuffed olives with blue cheese and roasted garlic.. It was gourmet to the max! I spent nearly $100 on this one relish tray.

My sister urged me not to forget the canned black olives and baby dill pickles for the kids. By the end of the night the only thing that was eaten was the canned black olives and the baby dills. I spent the next 4 days eating gourmet olives and mozzarella.

By last years Thanksgiving I had learned my lesson and brought only the two above items, watched diligently as they were devoured, and opened a new can/jar as needed to refill the “relish tray.” It was a success, but a hollow one.

This year my aunt who brings the ham would be visiting other family out of town.  Carpe Diem. This was my chance to cook for my family once again! I offered to bring the ham this year and the decision was approved. Most people nowadays grab a Honeybaked ham or something similar, but I had something different in mind.

My Grandmother
My Grandmother

At first I was going to get a fresh ham or even a green ham and cure it and/or smoke it myself. Unfortunately, that would take at least a week (up to a year!) and I didn’t have the time. Then I had another idea. The last few holidays have been rough. We lost my aunt and my grandmother both within days of Christmas. My grandmother used to make ham in a way that was popular over 4 decades ago. I was going to try to recreate this ham recipe.

Terms: Ham – the leg of a pig. Fresh Ham – Ham that hasn’t been cured or smoked. Green Ham – Ham that is cured but not smoked — not the Dr. Seuss kind served with green eggs.

Without further ado, here is the recipe.

Rosemary’s Retro Holiday Ham

Buying a Ham.

You should buy a ham that is fully cooked like this 15.98 lb beauty from Dearborn Brand. I say no glaze. We are going to make our own glaze. I also say not sliced. As much as you might think you love spiral sliced, 1) it dries out the ham during warming, 2) it is too thick of slices for sandwiches, 3) it is too thin for eating as a main dish.. like on Thanksgiving.

Yeah, pre-sliced is easier, but so is the drive-thru.

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 The Glaze

You can use anything for a glaze. It probably should include mustard and brown sugar, but it is really all about personal taste. I used…

  1. 1c brown sugar
  2. 12oz root beer
  3. 12 oz cherry cola
  4. 6oz bourbon stout
  5. 3oz whole ginger (pureed in the Ninja with the stout)
  6. 2 tbsp of spicy brown mustard
  7. The juice from one can of pineapple rings (save the rings)
  8. 75% of the juice from a jar of maraschino cherries (save the rest of the juice and the cherries)

Other ingredients you can use: apple juice, peach juice, ginger ale, Dr Pepper, Rock & Rye, other soda-pop, whiskey, orange juice or other citrus, honey, apple cider vinegar, herbs, various hot peppers, etc. The one thing I would not add is salt. Cured hams are plenty salty already.

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My Ingredients. No one will notice a missing sip or two of these ingredients, by the way.

Put all those in a sauce pot, whisk, and bring to a boil, once it boils lower the heat to a simmer and let it reduce uncovered.

Prepping the ham the day before2014-11-26 17.05.28

Look how happy that washed ham looks. So happy, but you know what? It probably misses its good friend bacon. So lets fry up some bacon.2014-11-26 17.05.39

Now let’s bring these two back together. Take a knife that is about 1 to 1.5 inches wide.2014-11-26 17.06.58

Now stab the ham -long wise- about 4-6 inches in2014-11-26 17.08.56

Stick your clean finger in the hole to stretch it slightly2014-11-26 17.12.44

Now shove those holes full of bacon! This will be like a diamond mind effect. As you dig through the ham you will stumble upon these little gems.2014-11-26 17.12.49

This part is optional, but I want to inject some juices into the bird. I took the remaining cherry juice and used a 10cc syringe with an 18ga needle. You can just use a store bought injector as well.

Pro-tip: inject about 1cc at each spot, and don’t pull the needle out for 5-10 seconds or else it will just squirt back out. Be patient. Good isn’t always fast.2014-11-26 17.16.39

Now this will be kind of a spice rub. 2 tbsp of spicy brown mustard and some spices, I used about 1 tsp each onion powder, garlic powder, all spice, cinnamon, and paprika (mostly for color). Rub this all over the ham. You can put on a glove if you want or just be ready to wash your hands again.2014-11-26 17.25.01

Some people like to rub the mustard first then sprinkle a rub on. I don’t like doing this because I feel like the spices have to penetrate the mustard first to get through to the meat. You can also use nutmeg, pepper, cayenne, ground mustard, granulated sugar, etc.

Pig meats really love mustard. If you just can’t use mustard for some reason then make sure you use something else to help the spices stick.. like, maple syrup perhaps? Again, no salt.

It should look like this when the rub is done.2014-11-26 17.31.16

Making the diamonds

Use a sharp knife and cut diamonds in the ham by criss-crossing parallel lines. You can go deeper over fat but if it is the meat just barely score it. It will look like this.

2014-11-26 17.33.25Now grab some whole cloves from the spice aisle and put in one at every “intersection” of these diamonds.


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Like so.

Put it in a big bag (or cover some other way) and put the ham in the fridge over night.

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If your timing is like mine, then your glaze will have simmered down to about half of its original volume. Put a lid on it and turn it off. I am leaving mine covered on the stove top over night. You can put it in the fridge if you are more of a germaphobe. Trust me, 200+ degrees plus high osmalality will not let anything grow in this overnight.2014-11-26 17.33.48



We slept-in, which is fantastic. We had chocolate creme coffee, steak & eggs, and some raw juice for brunch 🙂

Sleeping-in is a big part of what makes a holiday a holiday. That and food, so let’s get back to it.

Cooking the Ham
Set the oven to 325F.

Before you touch the ham, drain some pineapple rings and cherries. You want these to dehydrate so that they will brown easily. Ever notice how pizza with vegetable toppings doesn’t brown? That is because of the water content of the veges. Water is the enemy of browning; don’t skip draining these. You could probably sandwich these on several sheets of paper towel to speed this up if you’re crunched for time.

For germaphobes, you can drain these in the fridge over a bowl.

This ham is 16 lbs. You want to cook it for 14 minutes per pound. 16 x 14 = 224 minutes, or 3 hours 44 minutes. That is just an estimate. You really want to cook it to an internal temperature of 145F. I don’t own a digital probe thermometer so I will be using a basic meat thermometer.

Important! Don’t cook it to 160F – 170F like you will find all over the internet. This is the temp for a fresh/green ham. 145F is what you want to heat a pre-cooked ham to.

Take your ham and baste it (or brush it) with your glaze. Make sure you clean your baster/brush immediately with warm water after each use before the syrupy glaze hardens. I also put a cookie sheet on the bottom of the oven with 3 cups of water to add moisture to the oven environment. Now put your ham in on the lowest rack, which is probably the only way it will fit.

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Some call this a dirty oven. I call it seasoned.

You have an option here. Cover the ham in foil if you want a softer/lighter outside. No foil if you want a darker/harder candy shell. I am going to foil for the first 2-3 hours then take off the foil.

Should you baste during cooking? If we were talking about a turkey, I would say no. Opening the oven increases cooking time; increased cooking time dries out the meat. Ham is naturally more juicy and so, unlike poultry,  you are safe to baste. I basted after 1 hour like this…

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…reheat your glaze for a minute so it is thinner and easier to apply. Squirt some glaze on top with a baster then use a brush to spread it around the sides. Make sure you rotate all the way around to ensure a good shell. Replace the foil, close the oven, wash your utensils immediately.

I basted again at the 2 hour mark then recovered with foil.

At the 3 hour mark I removed the ham from the oven and removed the foil. I added another coat of glaze, then started placing the pineapple rings. Put a maraschino cherry inside each pineapple ring with toothpicks. If your glaze is sticky enough you may be able to skip some toothpicks. Just FYI, the temp was 115-120 at the 3 hour mark.

I might have overdone it with the cherries ;)
I might have overdone it with the cherries 😉

Add another coat of glaze to the pineapple rings, then sprinkle some brown sugar on top, then back in the oven it goes — no foil. If there is water left in your cookie sheet/drip pan, remove it. We want dry heat now.

Now at the 3:30 mark I stuck my thermometer in the thickest part of the meat (not by the bone). I am looking for 145F and it was 125F. More glaze, more brown sugar, back in the oven

At the 4:15 mark (half an hour past our estimate) the meat has hit 145F. Turn off the oven but do not touch the ham! Meat needs to rest to reabsorb juices. Ham needs 15-30 minutes, since this is a big ham we are going to wait 30 minutes, which is just about the time it takes to get to my aunts house for dinner.

Oh, one more thing before we pack it up to go. I really like that candy shell, so I am going to take it next level here. The rest of my glaze goes on, then a layer of brown sugar like so.

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Why is it outside on the driveway?

Now, if you have a propane torch you can flambe by sweeping the flame across the topping until the sugar caramelizes. If you don’t you can just set your oven to broil and place it uncovered under the broiler for ~5 minutes… do not take your eyes off of it, once the sugar caramelizes the next step is charcoal. Don’t waste all your effort.

Now I have a propane torch and a broil setting, but I am going to use something else… my favorite cooking utensil, the Red Dragon 500,000 BTU Flame Thrower!

Something tells me my grandmother didn't do this.
Something tells me my grandmother didn’t do this.

It will look like this when it’s done caramelizing.

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enlarged to show texture

Let it cool for a few minutes, cover in new foil, wrap in a blankets, and then put it in a box. This will keep it safe and warm for transport.


When I arrived at my aunt’s house, I started by removing all the pineapple, cherries, and especially the toothpicks.

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You don’t go through all of this effort to just hack the thing any which way. Meat has direction. Think of a big stack of spaghetti noodles.

This is like the fibers in the meat

If you cut the stack along the length of the noodles you will still have long strings, but if you cut across the noodles you will make a bunch of short bite-size pieces. You will need to find this directional grain in the meat.

Picture quartering an apple. I start by cutting the ham along the top middle right down to the bone. Then down one of the sides to the bone, I then pull away one quarter of the ham and put on a tray to be sliced. See the direction in the meat below?  It more-or-less goes diagonally from bottom-left to top-right. So we will cut perpendicular to that… just like the spaghetti.

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I cut 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick slices, about twice as thick as a spiral sliced ham would be. Once the tray was full I put it next to the rest of the food and waited to see what the reaction would be.

One more thing, try to leave a piece of glazed exterior on each slice!

Final thoughts

I had in my head a scale of 1-10 on how well people would like this ham. 1 would mean people found it inedible. A 10 would be that it was well received. 5 would mean no one noticed that anything was different. I feel like it was an 11 or 12 🙂

I honestly couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I brought home a nearly empty bone for soup making.

More than the all the good food, it feels so rewarding to help serve people I love. I didn’t serve ham as much as I serve smiles and good memories. Happy Thanksgiving!

There is plenty of time for any of you to put this together for Christmas 😉