Selecting a menu for the perfect Easter dinner doesn’t have to be difficult, especially if you stick with the classics.
Glazed ham, creamy scalloped potatoes, fresh asparagus with butter and lemon or perhaps real hollandaise sauce to add that extra fancy touch — there’s a reason why this meal has been repeated for generations. It just works.
The smoky flavor of ham and sweetness of its glaze is the perfect counterpoint to the creamy, savory potatoes, while the asparagus, one of the first vegetables of spring, adds the needed shot of green to the plate and palate. Add a salad, dinner rolls, and perhaps ethnic Easter bread, and the meal is complete. (Of course, colored eggs and chocolate will help to round out any Easter meal.)
A ham dinner for Easter is one of the easiest holiday meals to put on the table.
Take care when selecting a ham — either half or whole — depending on the size of the crowd, figuring about a half pound per person. Bone-in or boneless varieties are offered at all butcher shops and grocery stores. Most hams have water added and come fully cooked. It is still necessary to bake these hams at 325 degrees until they reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees (about 15 minutes per pound). Hams that are not fully cooked need to be baked until they reach 165 degrees.
A traditional dry-cured smoked ham is difficult to find in Northeast Ohio. Most hams in grocery stores and butcher shops here are wet-cured hams that already have been skinned, making them very easy to prepare.
Ham requires little monitoring beyond the last half hour when it’s time to baste with the glaze. But keep in mind, it’s fine to leave a ham unglazed too. Folks who want to reuse leftovers for soup or other savory recipes may prefer to avoid the glaze and the sweetness it gives to the meat.
For an unglazed ham, serve a sauce on the side, which can be as simple as apricot preserves or more old-fashioned like a cooked raisin sauce, which can be prepared a day ahead and reheated.
Scalloped potatoes can be assembled the day before, refrigerated and baked on the holiday.
With scalloped potatoes, there are two ways to approach the dish. The first is the traditional French preparation, Gratin Dauphinois, which is just potatoes, milk, cream, salt, pepper and garlic. You can add grated Gruyère to the top.
The second is a decidedly more American version of scalloped potatoes, which combines milk or cream with flour and butter between layers of thinly sliced potatoes, often with onions or sweet peppers.
In either case, the potatoes are par-boiled first either in milk or water, which will cut down on oven time considerably.
Finally, asparagus needs little more than a few minutes in a steamer to be table ready. Melted butter infused with freshly squeezed lemon juice is a fresh and simple way to top it, but for a fancier preparation there is hollandaise sauce.
Hollandaise, while not difficult to prepare, does require some serious attention. Also, because the egg yolks in this sauce may not reach 165 degrees, it is advisable to use pasteurized eggs to eliminate any potential chance of bacterial contamination.
Because this meal is such a classic, recipes to accompany have been selected from classic chefs and cookbooks, including Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook and the Joy of Cooking.
SPIRIT GLAZE FOR HAM
½ to 1 cup dry red wine
½ to 1 cup bourbon
1 cup brown sugar
6 cloves, crushed
2 tbsp. grated orange peel
Combine ingredients. Spread on ham. Use glaze to baste during last half hour of cooking.
Makes 2 to 3 cups.
— The Joy of Cooking, 1981 edition, Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp. dry mustard
2 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. vinegar
2 tbsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. lemon peel
1½ cups water
½ cup raisins
In a medium saucepan, mix brown sugar, dry mustard and cornstarch together. Slowly add vinegar. Add lemon juice, lemon peel, water and raisins. Stir over low heat until thickened.
Makes 2 cups.
— The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 1953 edition
1¾ lbs. potatoes, preferably Yukon Gold
2½ cups milk
2 to 3 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère cheese (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Peel the potatoes and slice them ¼-inch thick by hand, with a vegetable slicer or with the slicing blade of a food processor. Do not rinse the slices.
Combine the potato slices, milk, garlic, salt and pepper in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring gently to separate the slices and prevent the mixture from scorching. It will thicken as it reaches a boil.
Pour the potato mixture into a (greased) 6-cup gratin dish and pour the cream on top. Top with grated cheese, if using. Place the dish on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until half of the liquid is absorbed and the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and cheese, if using, is browned. Let the potatoes rest for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
— Essential Pépin, Jacques Pépin
3 cups pared, very thinly sliced potatoes
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. flour
3 to 6 tbsp. butter
¼ cup finely chopped chives or onions
¼ cup finely chopped sweet peppers (green or red)
1¼ cups milk or cream
1¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. dry mustard
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a saucepan of boiling water, drop potato slices and 1 teaspoon salt. Parboil about 8 minutes. Drain well. Grease a 10-inch baking dish.
Layer about 1 cup of potatoes into bottom of dish. Sprinkle each layer with flour and dot with butter. Sprinkle onions and peppers on top. Repeat with two more layers. Season with black pepper between the layers.
Heat cream in a sauce pan. Add salt, paprika and dry mustard. Pour the cream mixture over the potatoes. Bake about 35 to 45 minutes or until potatoes are fork tender.
Makes 6 servings.
— Adapted from The Joy of Cooking, 1981 edition, Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
14 tbsp. (1¾ sticks) butter
3 egg yolks
2 tbsp. cold water
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Pinch of salt
Melt 12 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan and set aside.
In a heavy, medium saucepan, beat egg yolks with a wire whisk until thick and sticky, about 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon cold water, lemon juice and salt, and beat 30 seconds longer.
Add 1 tablespoon cold butter. Do not beat it in. Place pan over very low heat or barely simmering water and whisk until eggs slowly thicken into a smooth cream, about 2 minutes. The eggs have thickened enough when you begin to see the bottom of the pan between strokes and the mixture forms a light cream on the wires of the whisk.
Remove from heat and beat in remaining 1 tablespoon cold butter, which will cool the egg yolks and stop their cooking.
Then, beating the egg yolks with a wire whisk, pour on the melted butter by droplets or quarter-teaspoonsful until the sauce begins to thicken into a very heavy cream. Then pour the butter a little more rapidly. Omit the milky residue at the bottom of the melted butter.
Season the sauce to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Makes 1 to 1½ cups.
Note: Keep warm by placing pan in a larger pan filled with warm water.
— Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck