At the chef Gabriel Kreuther’s New York City restaurant, reclaimed wood beams ringing the dining room evoke the timber homes of Alsace, a French region bordering Germany. Mr. Kreuther grew up there, on a farm where he and his family slaughtered one pig a year and preserved many of the parts, including the hind legs, which they cured into ham.
Knowing the time and care that go into that process, Mr. Kreuther emphasizes the importance of heating ham carefully. “Do everything you can to not dehydrate it,” he said. “It’s already cooked; you just need to prepare it without killing it.”
Mr. Kreuther is talking about the country hams of his youth near the Black Forest, where his family slowly cured the hams in their root cellar and smoked them in a smoking chamber in their attic. But even city hams, the brine-cured haunches piled in supermarket cases, need to be treated with care if cooking for Easter. And especially if cooking for the third Easter of the pandemic.
Easter brunch, at this phase of exhaustion and uncertainty, should taste like something special and feel like a real accomplishment in the kitchen — like a soufflé, but without the tricky timing and nervousness. Not hosting the annual meal over the past few years has given me a chance to rethink the particular challenges it presents, namely how to keep presliced hams juicy and what to do with all those dyed, boiled eggs.
For the star of the meal, a city ham, which most of us know as, simply, a ham, offers the ease of being fully cooked and essentially ready to serve. Even more convenient are the ones that come already cut — spiral-sliced around the bone or thinly sliced. Although these hams are affordable, they come at a different kind of cost: The slices dry out easily in the oven.
As part of the wet curing process, some fresh hams are injected with a water solution, which keeps the lean cut moist, but also dilutes the natural pork flavor. The tastiest city ham options are labeled “ham,” which has no added water, and “ham with natural juices,” which has 7 to 8 percent added water. (“Ham and water products” and “ham, water added” include even more water, which makes them bland and simultaneously spongy and slimy.)
Because hams are fully cooked, they can be eaten without heating and are arguably juiciest that way. “Truly, it is best to serve our hams at room temperature,” said Brian Heffern, the retail operations manager for the Honey Baked Ham Company, which reiterates that message on its website, in instructional YouTube videos and through in-store employees. But, of course, they still receive “a lot of complaints of overcooked ham that has dried out,” Mr. Heffern said. People don’t follow the company’s room temperature recommendation or instructions for warming a few slices at a time because they like to heat their hams whole.
It’s understandable. Even if a ham best retains its moisture at room temperature, it can feel weird to serve a holiday centerpiece that way. After decades of trying to bake a presliced ham without its stiffening toward leathery — enclosed in an oven bag, covered with pineapple and then with foil, surrounded by a bath of broth — I gave up on the oven. The thin slabs were no match against the dry heat.
But starting the ham on the stovetop and finishing it with a quick blast in the oven? That turned out flavorful slices with crackling edges in a fraction of the time. (It also left the oven free for baking hot cross buns.)
The inspiration for cooking ham on the stove came from sauerkraut, a dish of smoked, cured and fresh pork simmered with sauerkraut and wine. I learned to prepare the dish from Mr. Kreuther and the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten while working on their cookbooks, which include the sauerkraut recipes they both grew up preparing in their native Alsace.
What I love most about sauerkraut is the way smoked ham hocks and slab bacon soak up the wine, perfumed with piney juniper berries, while becoming tender and staying juicy. So I applied that treatment to ham following a tip from Mr. Kreuther. He advised cooking ham in “a little liquid, so steam comes up around it.”
Perching a quarter-ham — the ideal size for a smaller gathering — on a rack of onions, I added just enough juniper-spiked Riesling to meet it. In the process of steaming, the ham’s natural juices released into the covered pot, mingling with the wine and surrounding the meat. It felt like magic, the way the slices absorbed the spiced, honeyed broth, reminiscent of how tofu takes on more marinade if its water is pressed out first.
A final coating of brown sugar and honey, speckled with mustard seeds, caramelizes onto the ham in the oven. Heated just long enough for the topping to melt into a candied crust, the ham doesn’t dry out. The slices do, however, develop a pleasant chew, similar to country ham. And the seasoning isn’t limited to the outer ring. Fanning the slices lets the glaze slide between them. The parts untouched by the glaze have a fragrant subtle sweetness thanks to the initial simmering.
This technique works on a spiral-sliced half-ham, too, with double the ingredients and a larger pot, but I don’t have that big a crowd to feed and hate wasting leftovers I can’t finish. That’s already too often the case with boiled eggs around this holiday. You can only eat so much egg salad in the time it lasts.
Instead, I make tea eggs, a Chinese snack all the aunties brought to my childhood church on Easter Sunday. Soaked in a brew of black tea, soy sauce, ginger and spices, boiled eggs take on a complex savoriness. Often the shells are cracked just enough to let the tea seep through and stain the eggs with an intricate marbled pattern.
If you’re using dyed eggs, you can peel them first if you want to avoid ingesting the food coloring. Fully peeled eggs emerge a stoic brown and with even more flavor. In both cases, the eggs keep in the refrigerator for up to a week and taste as good on their own as they do with pork, chicken, rice, noodles or vegetables. (They also make amazing egg salad.)
And long after this spring holiday, tea eggs remain — as they are, as they have been — the type of small joy you’ll always be glad to have around.
Recipes: Honey Ham | Tea Eggs | Hot Cross Buns