A Rye Wrapped Ham or “Osterschinken”
Many are feverishly preparing for their upcoming Easter Brunch or Easter Dinner. And what says Easter more than a baked ham? Coated in a crisp, sugary glaze and slow baked, maybe scored and pierced with cloves, it’s the traditional dish for many. These days you don’t even have to do the work. You can order a wonderful Honey Baked Ham, already cooked, spiral sliced and neatly packaged. Be sure to save the hambone for pea soup after your family has grazed the meat. Most grocers like Kroger and Trader Joes have similar, and tasty knockoffs.
But before the days of time-saving Honey Baked Hams in Cincinnati, people went to an unlikely source to bake their Easter hams – their local bakery. In addition to all the wonderful confections made at bakeries for Easter, they provided this savory service as well. Back into the forties and probably earlier, people would take a ham in a large roasting pan to their local bakery before Easter. The baker, who had huge industrial ovens, would then glaze and wrap the ham in a rye bread crust and bake it for customers. This produced an extraordinarily delicious and moist ham.
My Grandfather did this for his loyal customers at his bakery in Dayton, Kentucky. He’d advertise a few weeks before Easter and usually, as my mother recalls, about a dozen or more of their good customers would bring him a ham to be baked. He had a 6 shelf rotary conveyer oven and could handle at least a dozen hams at a time overnight. His oven was big enough to load my uncle as an adolescent on a shelf and rotate him around to clean it. Grandpa would wrap the hams in a thin rye crust, bake them and return them to the customer. My mom recalls how delicious the crispy rye crust was coming out of the oven, dipped in the ham juices. I’m not sure if Grandpa delivered the ham with or without the rye crust still enshrouding it like a giant pig-in-the-blanket.
The other Easter confections at Grandpa’s bakery – the lamb cakes (always one ‘black sheep’) and the bunny cakes.
The practice is definitely of German origin. In Germany and Northern Europe a bread baked ham is called “Ostershinken” or Easter ham. A good dough is flavored with caraway and coriander seeds, maybe sweetened with local honey or molasses. Some recipes call for adding beef stock to the rye bread for an even more savory flavor. One 1954 American recipe calls for cutting a hole in the dough and halfway through the baking process, taking it out, pouring brandy into the hole and finishing the baking. The ham is usually glazed in brown sugar and stone ground mustard. Some old German recipes call for orange or apricot marmalade glazing, which to me sounds insanely good.
But as we lose more and more family owned bakeries to big box stores, this practice is less common. Virginia Bakery in Clifton used to offer this service. They used some ingredients only available through bakery supply companies like caraway emulsion, rye sour, and caramel for the dough. The trick to making rye sour yourself, apparently, is to mix a rye yeast starter, and hang a cut onion in cheesecloth over it and allow the juices to drip into the starter. Bonomoni Bakery in Northside still offers this service to select clients, and there are probably more bakeries that do it as well.
But Jesus, whose Resurrection we celebrate on Easter was Jewish. And pork is not to be eaten by Jews according to kosher regulations. So why eat ham on Easter? It’s simple – hams are in season. Before modern refrigeration, hogs were slaughtered in the fall and made into sausage and other cured products that could be kept over the cold winter months. Most hams were made at harvest and allowed to age and properly cure over the winter. Lamb, which has more traditional connection to the Jewish Passover feast, is less popular in the U.S., and pork was king in Germany. The custom of rye wrapping was brought over by German immigrants.
German immigrants also brought us our modern customs of celebrating Easter. The paschal lamb, the symbol of the risen Christ is not who brings us our Easter goodies. Easter bunnies have their roots in old German pagan traditions celebrating the goddess Eostra, goddess of fertility, around the Spring Equinox. You’ve heard the phrase ‘breeding like rabbits’. Well, they became the symbol of this fertility for the spring goddess and morphed into the hoppy Peter Cottontail.
An ancient idol of Eostra, where the term Easter originates