Visions of sugarplums might have danced in other kids’ heads, but we dreamt of a Christmas morning with a kitchen table piled with homemade buttermilk biscuits, butter, jams and jellies, eggs, bacon, country sausage, ambrosia, grits, orange juice, coffee with real whipped cream and, at the center of the table, Mama’s red-eye gravy and fried country ham.
Country ham that Daddy fetched every fall from the smokehouse of a farmer who’d spent at least a year on that ham – curing it in dry salt, smoking it for up to two months and hanging it up to age – just as farmers have been doing in the South since at least the mid-1600s.
Country ham is an art born of salt, smoke and sweat. But competition from the commercial ham industry has made all of that smoke and sweat a lot less appealing to many farmers. The tradition was dying until a few years ago, when authentic country ham was rediscovered by American chefs looking for a domestic alternative to European dry-cured hams. Soon, some farmers started marketing their product as “American prosciutto.”
According to the The New York Times, the quality and flavor of these hams are comparable to the more respected (and expensive) hams of Spain and Italy.
The first time I saw that label, “American prosciutto,” on a country ham, my jaw dropped at the genius of the idea and the new price, about $1 an ounce. Luckily, these Pretzel Bites with Cheddar and Country Ham require only 3 ounces.
I hope we find a new ham bootlegger before Christmas.
As for the pretzels bites, they take time, but the process is fairly easy. The dough comes together like a pizza dough and rests for about two hours, until it doubles. Then you divide the dough into four pieces, and shape each piece into a rectangle. Press some of the ham and cheese into the bottom third of each rectangle, roll up each rectangle of dough to form a rope, and cut the ropes into 12 equal pieces. (You can divide the dough and slice the ropes with a knife, but it’s much easier to use a bench scraper, one of the greatest and cheapest multipurpose kitchen tools in the known universe.)
After the pretzel bites have rested for 30 minutes, you’ll dip them in a simmering solution of water and baking powder for about 20 seconds. They’ll look slightly puffy. Don’t worry about the dough losing its filling in the water; the pretzel bites will stay intact. Once they’ve all been dipped, bake them for 15 minutes, brush them with butter, and sprinkle them with pretzel (or coarse) salt.
While they’re cooling, you’ll have plenty of time to make the jalapeño mustard. Something good to keep your hands busy while you’re waiting for those golden-brown pockets of dough just oozing with molten cheddar and country ham to be ready for the popping.
Now, let’s cheer along together: “Sharp cheddar! Country ham! It’s on the comeback, hot damn!”
P.S. These pretzel bites freeze beautifully, so don’t be afraid to make the full batch and freeze any leftovers for tailgating, snacking while waiting for trick-or-treaters, holiday entertaining, PMS, serving as an alternative to grilled cheese for Soup Night, keeping your hands warm and rewarding pets. You’ll find the freezing and rewarming instructions after the recipe.
Country Ham and Cheddar Pretzel Bites with Jalapeño Mustard
Adapted from Gourmet (October 2009)
Makes 4 dozen
- 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon packed light brown sugar, divided
- 1/4 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)
- 1 cup warm milk (110-115 degrees F)
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup finely chopped country ham (3 ounces; preferably Newsom’s or Benton’s), divided
- 1/3 to 2/3 cup finely chopped sharp Cheddar, divided
- 6 cups water
- 4 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
- 1 to 2 tablespoons pretzel salt or coarse salt
- 1/2 cup Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped seeded fresh jalapeños
- 1 tablespoon mild honey
- In a large bowl, stir together yeast, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, and warm water. Let it stand until foamy, 5 to 8 minutes. (If mixture doesn’t foam, start over with new yeast.)
- In a small bowl, stir remaining 2 tablespoons brown sugar into warm milk until dissolved.
- Add 2 1/2 cups flour and milk mixture to yeast mixture; stir with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms, adding up to 1/2 cup additional flour, a little at a time, if necessary.
- Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and gently knead a few times to form a smooth ball. Transfer to a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at warm room temperature until doubled and bubbles appear on surface, about 2 hours.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F with rack in upper and lower thirds. Line two rimmed sheet pans with parchment paper.
- Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and cut into 4 equal pieces. Lightly dust your hands with flour, then gently roll and stretch 1 piece of dough to form a 12-inch-long rope. Flatten dough and arrange so a long side is nearest you, then roll out to a roughly 12- by 4-inch rectangle with a lightly floured rolling pin.
- Gently press one fourth of ham and cheese into lower third of rectangle, leaving a 1/2-inch border along bottom edge. Stretch bottom edge of dough up over filling and press tightly to seal, then roll up as tightly as possible to form a rope. Cut rope into 12 pieces, and transfer to a sheet pan. Make 3 more ropes with remaining dough, ham, and cheese and cut into pieces, transferring to sheet pans. Let rest at room temperature, uncovered, 30 minutes (dough will rise slightly).
- Bring water to a boil in a 4-to 5-quart saucepan. Reduce heat until the water is gently simmering, and stir in baking soda. Add pretzel bites to the water in batches, turning once, until slightly puffed, about 20 seconds. Transfer with a slotted spoon to sheet pans.
- Bake until puffed and golden-brown, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, stir together mustard, jalapeños and honey.
- Brush warm pretzel bites with butter, and sprinkle with pretzel salt. Serve warm or at room temperature with jalapeño mustard for dipping.
Note: Pretzels can be made 2 weeks ahead and frozen (once cooled). Thaw 30 minutes, then reheat in a 400 degree F oven about 10 minutes.