The holiday weekend brings thoughts of pork to the table. Personally, I think of hot dogs, and yes, while I occasionally wander to fancies of hamburgers on the grill, I return to pork. My favorite pork product is the tenderloin. Small and juicy, they are neither too sweet or too salty. I know many people cook ham over holiday meals, but I never understood why. Now I know. We can thank the old Norse God of agriculture, weather and (ahem) male fertility, Freyr, for this tradition. The ham over Christmas was a tradition for “Germanic peoples as a tribute… to boars, harvest and fertility.” (Source, wikipedia). For this week’s recipe, we pay our own tribute to Freyr; may it bring us a bountiful harvest and abundant fertility!

If you recall when we first tasted a recipe from De Re Coquinaria by Apicius, we also find Aresty’s Apician Ham and Figs.

289 Fresh Ham
Musteis petasonem

A fresh ham is cooked with 2 pounds of barley and 25 figs. When done skin, glaze the surface with a fire shovel full of glowing coals, spread honey over it, or, what’s better: put it in the oven covered with honey. When it has a nice color, put in a sauce pan raisin wine, pepper, a bunch of rue and pure wine to taste. When this sauce is done, pour half of it over the ham…

I’m saving the rest of the recipe to share later, but first, let’s get to the mods!

Aresty’s original recipe called for

A canned or precooked ham
1/4 cup brown sugar (and a pinch of ground cloves)
Canned figs (or dried figs, steamed for 20 minutes or soaked in hot water for the same length of time)
1/4 cup canned fig juice

Here are my modifications…

1 8-10 lb. uncooked ham shoulder (smoked)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup honey
25-30 dried figs, soaked 20 minutes in 1 1/2 cups hot water, fig water reserved

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups basting juices from the ham
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

I added the honey simply because the Apicius’ original recipe said it was best, so we’re going to go with that. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees F. Place the uncooked ham, revealed flesh-side down, in a shallow baking pan. Coat the top of the ham with brown sugar and cloves, rubbing throughly. Soften the honey slightly in a microwave (warm enough to still touch), then pour over the ham, again, rubbing throughly, until the whole ham is covered in gooey sweetness. If your hands are also gooey, I would suggest washing them before proceeding to the next steps.

Cover the ham lightly with aluminum foil, or to be more authentic, parchment paper, and slide into the pre-heated oven. Allow 18 to 25 minutes for each pound of ham. Mine, being roughly 8 lbs, took around 4 hours to cook. One hour into the cooking, remove the foil, and pour the reserved fig juice over the top of the ham. This will be your basting liquid. I basted once every 45 minutes.

This next step, I found to be completely optional, so disregard if you want. 1 hour before the ham is completed, remove the ham and decorate with figs. From Aresty: “…nip off the little hard end and cut the fig nearly into quarters. Open it and flatten out on the ham in the appearance of a four-leaf clover. The decoration is enhanced if a small hole is made in the uncut center of the fig and a green grape is forced halfway through it.” I had thoughts of this step turning out a lot better than I really imagined it. Personally, I thought of unhappily decorated hams in 1950’s cookbooks, dressed in figgy four leaf clovers with lime green bulbs sticking out of the bright pink skin… Well, it was enough to make me want to *try* to improve it. Sadly, not even I could make this decoration work.

Take out the ham when it is cooked completely and reserve the basting juices. It’s gonna make a lovely sauce. In a pan over medium heat, melt the butter and soften the chopped onions. Add the flour and stir until the flour is covered with the butter. Cook two minutes more. Add the basting juices and stir quickly over medium-low heat until thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Let’s get to the final part of Apicius original recipe:

When this sauce is done, pour half of it over the ham and in the other half soak specially made ginger bread. The remnant of the sauce after most of it is thoroughly soaked into the bread, add to the ham.

Ginger bread, eh? That sounds like fun! I’ve made gingerbread before! We just need… oh, wait… how old is gingerbread? Wow… well, we’d better get to work then, and we don’t have to cook it?? Cool! I used a Medieval recipe recreation from Kristen Sullivan:

* 1 cup honey
* 1 loaf wheat bread, ground into bread crumbs
* 3/4 tsp cinnamon
* 1/4 tsp black pepper
* 1/4 tsp ginger
* cinnamon and red sandalwood to coat (Cynthia’s note: I did not use sandalwood)

Bring the honey to a boil, reduce heat, and allow to simmer for 5 or 10 minutes, skimming off any scum that forms on the surface. Remove from heat and add pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. Add bread crumbs to honey one cup at a time. Mix until honey and bread crumbs are thoroughly mixed (this should require some kneading). Divide mixture into quarters and roll out on wax paper.Cut into 1 inch squares, and dust with mixture of one part cinnamon to two parts sandalwood.

Very, very nice. A little bit on the sweet side, but this was incredibly easy and quick to make. It also came out to be a tasty addition to ham.

But now I love ham!

However… the final mating of the figs and the ham were incredible. The ham, while originally packed in salt water and juices, came out tasting sweet and delectable. I would add maybe a side of mashed potatoes to this and some steamed vegetables (like asparagus, maybe) to make it a complete meal.