I am still surprised when I offhandedly mention ham loaf to friends, even American friends, who more often than not look puzzled and ask “what is ham loaf?” I always just assumed ham loaf was standard American fare, but I have been duly enlightened.
In actuality ham loaf’s roots reach back to various German speaking religious groups, including Amish and Mennonite farmers, who emigrated to America in the 17th century to escape religious persecution in Europe. They, as farmers, chose to settle in Southeastern Pennsylvania with its rich fertile soil that was ideal for their old world farming methods. The area became known as Pennsylvania (Deitsch) Dutch country which is where I grew up. These pristine family farms have been passed down for generations so a good bit of the rural countryside has remained, thankfully, mostly untouched by modernization.
Pennsylvania Dutch cooks have probably been making versions of ham loaf for a couple of centuries. The recipes have been passed down and have remained pretty much unchanged over the years judging from recipes I have looked at. The recipe here I found in one of my mother’s handwritten recipe notebooks to which I have added a couple of optional seasonings. The resulting ham loaf is every bit as comforting and scrumptious today as it was when we were kids back in Lancaster county.
Typically in Pennsylvania farm communities the big meal of the day is still served family style around noon during the busy summer months. Ham loaf would most likely be served along with several homegrown vegetables and potatoes freshly plucked out of the garden. Nothing fancy mind you, just a beautifully fresh and hearty meal that mirrors the balance of a considered way of life.
As pictured, the ham loaf is served with steamed young Brussels’s sprouts, including the outer leaves, spritzed with olive oil and lemon juice. Boiled potatoes are tossed with butter, olive oil, salt and pepper. The horseradish cream is my own choice for an accompaniment as horseradish is also locally grown in Lancaster county and adds a refreshing flavor note.
Ham Loaf serves 6
Equipment: 1 loaf pan: approximately 10” x 6” x 3”
- 1 ¼ pounds ground ham
- 1 ¾ pounds ground pork
- 1 cup finely diced onions
- 2 finely minced garlic cloves
- 1 cup tomato sauce ( pureed tomatoes)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme or sage leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- 1 teaspoon sea salt plus more as needed
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon pure ground red chile powder (optional)
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- milk to soak bread crumbs
- 2 large organic eggs
- 3 bay leaves (optional
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon dried mustard powder
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- ¼ cup water
It is best to marinate the seasoned ham and pork mixture overnight to develop flavor.
In a large bowl combine the ham, pork, onions, garlic, 1/3 cup tomato sauce, thyme or sage, marjoram, ground clove, 1 teaspoon salt or more to your own taste, pepper, and chile powder if using. Knead the mixture with you hands until the ingredients are well combined. Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate overnight or for up to 24 hours.
The following day remove the ham pork mixture from the fridge. Briefly soak the breadcrumbs in milk. Squeeze out the excess milk from the breadcrumbs and add them to the ham pork mixture.
Whisk the eggs in a small bowl and add to the ham pork mixture. Using your hands kneed the mixture to completely incorporate the breadcrumbs and eggs into the ham pork mixture.
Lightly oil the loaf pan and fill it with the ham loaf mixture evenly without overly compressing the meat into the pan. If the meat is too firmly packed the meat will tend to be dense and rubbery rather than soft and tender when cooked. Press bay leaves into the top surface and set aside for baking.
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
While the oven is heating you can prepare the glaze for the ham loaf
Combine the brown sugar, mustard powder, cider vinegar, and water in a small stainless saucepan. Set the pan over medium low heat and bring the mixture to a boil while stirring. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook a couple of minutes until the glaze thickens slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
Brush the top of the ham loaf with the glaze and transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.
Open the oven door and glaze the top of the loaf again and bake for another 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes remove the loaf from the oven and once again glaze the top of the loaf. You will notice the loaf has separated from the sides of the loaf pan leaving a small gap. Spoon tomato sauce (puree) into the gaps around the loaf until nearly filled. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.Remove the ham loaf from the oven and place on a cooling rack. Keep in mind you do not want to over bake the loaf as it will tend to dry out!
Once the loaf is cool enough to handle, pour out excess liquid in the loaf pan into a small bowl and set aside. Run a knife around the edges of the loaf. Place a sheet of parchment over the loaf and invert the pan onto a cutting board. If the loaf is sticking a bit, grip both the cutting board and the pan together and give the pan a firm downward thrust. This should release the loaf.
Once the loaf is released, place a serving platter over the loaf. While gripping both the cutting board and the platter together, turn the loaf upright. Remove the parchment and discard.
Slice the ham loaf into generous portions crosswise. Spoon reserved pan juices over the slices of ham loaf and serve along with horseradish cream at the table.
- ½ cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (Hellmann’s)
- 2 tablespoons prepared mustard (Dijon)
- 2 tablespoons fresh prepared horseradish
Combine all the ingredients in a stainless bowl and whip until combined and smooth.. Chill until serving time.