Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Sweet Cherry Ham Bake: or, I've been waiting for this

 It's all fun and adventure in the cold until the water goes out and the electricity threatens to follow. Cavorting in the snow is only amusing when you when a toasty house waits with a cozy hot shower. In between doing various preparations to keep the house and ourselves all right, we've all been doing things that we like-- just to make sure we don't go nuts from worry. For some in this house, it's watching car videos. For others, it's doting on the household quadrupeds. For myself, it's cooking things that sound bizarre.

I have often mentioned to the others in the house that in the Before Times, I loved dredging up weird recipes and making them with friends. When you're with people who also enjoy the horrors of culinary discovery, you can have a delightfully memorable time making things like peanut butter and chicken soup or boiling a pudding in a shirt. But these days, of course, going out to visit is like coming up with a wardrobe to go en promenade that still fits after a year of quarantining with your favorite foods. It's just not going to happen. 

Anyway, we purchased a lot of groceries ahead of the freeze-out. At this point I have to credit everyone else in the house for saying we should get groceries to ensure that we have enough to eat for a few days. I thought they were being worrywarts and that we'd just laugh about it later when nothing happened but we had a lot of extra frozen vegetables waiting for a casserole recipe. Then snow took out the roads and we were all housebound, watching videos of Canadian snowplowing and wishing it would happen here. We had to dislodge a lot of things from the freezer to make room for a lot of frozen dinners (we figured that we might all be a bit too stressed for domesticity). Among the things we moved from the freezer to the refrigerator was something we got on clearance last Thanksgiving:

We figured we could just saw off pieces of the ham over the next week or so, putting it in sandwiches, soup, or just reheating it on a plate. But I've had this one recipe in mind ever since I saw it on Mid-Century Menu a few years ago. She used to intersperse her cooking adventures with interesting recipes posted without comment. One of them lodged itself in the back of my mind. It was a strange concoction of ham, celery, and cherry pie filling. The cookbook photograph showed an unnaturally red swamp of cherries and celery surrounded by a ring of bread rolls, all on an even brighter red background. 

Unfortunately, I didn't save the recipe and couldn't find it anywhere on her site. All of those recipe-only posts seem to have vanished in a site redesign. Searching for things like "ham cherry recipe" turned up a few Pinterest links with that mesmerizing photo and a now-dead link to a post on Mid-Century Menu that does not exist anymore. Because I have a lot of free time on my hands, I said to myself "I wonder if the Wayback Machine has any older versions of her site?" It turns out, they do! Sometimes, if you forget to save something you found online, the Internet Archive will save it for you. Behold the recipe that has sporadically tickled the back of my head ever since I saw it!

Source: Mid-Century Menu via archive.org

Sweet Cherry Ham Bake
4 c cubed, cooked ham
1 c (2 stalks) chopped celery
½ tsp dry mustard
2 c (one 16-oz can) cherry pie filling
2 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp lemon juice
⅛ tsp cloves
    Parkerhouse Biscuits
1½ c flour
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ c shortening
⅓ c milk
1 egg
1 to 2 tbsp butter or margarine
milk for brushing

Heat oven to 425°.
Mix the ham, celery, and dry mustard. Put into a 12"x8" (2 quart) baking dish. Mix together the remaining ingredients and spoon over the ham. Bake 20 minutes. Place the biscuits on them and bake 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
    To make the biscuits:
Mix the dry ingredients together. Cut in the shortening like a pie crust. Add the milk and egg. Knead 12 times. Roll out to a quarter inch. Cut into 2½" circles. Using the flat side of a knife, make a crease just off-center. Put a small pat of butter on the bigger side. Brush around the edge with milk, fold over, and press to seal.

Note: You can skip the business of making biscuit dough and just use canned ones. Or serve this masterpiece over rice instead.

Source: Pillsbury's Meat Cook Book, 1970 via Mid-Century Menu on the Wayback Machine

Cherries and ham didn't seem so strange to me. I've seen plenty of people who put pineapples on ham, and swapping pineapples for cherries isn't the most radical change in the world of ham and fruit. But I've never seen anyone attempt to make cherry pie out of ham and celery. I asked everyone in the house if we could attempt to make this if we survived the great freeze. No one here shares my love of exploring unfortunate foods, but they benignly decided that yes, we can do this thing--- on the condition that I cut the recipe in half. This was no problem since I was going to halve it anyway. Who wants a massive vat of cherry pie filling impregnated with ham and celery? I did, however, say that I was going to make the full quantity of rolls because they looked like they'd be really good. After these trying times, none of us could argue against eating a lot of delicious bread.


Speaking of bread, I was surprised that we're not using yeast in these. But I guess no one selling a cookbook full of exciting new ways to use modern convenience foods wants to tell their readers to start baking early so the bread can rise. I also find it a little strange that we're not using butter but shortening in the bread dough. We are are then directed to put butter in the middle of each roll. If we wanted them to taste buttery, why are we not just making these with butter to begin with? I guess shortening is modern and scientific since it comes from a factory while butter comes from some antiquated farm somewhere that smells like cows. Anyway, since we already have a massive can of Crisco because of the Hillary Clinton cookies, we're not going to argue with our friendly friends who wrote the Pillsbury Meat Cook Book at the beginning of the seventies.

At this point, I decided that we had a long baking time ahead of us before we got to the bread, so it was the perfect time to bring out the knife and our star ingredients. We have already seen the ham lying in freshly-defrosted splendor on the counter. It is now joined by celery. I bit into some of the celery while cutting, and noticed that it wasn't as awful as I used to think it was. I always thought celery was unrelentingly awful and bitter. One year at a kiddie summer camp, I caused a minor scene and disrupted everyone else making ants on a log when I realized that we were expected to actually eat it. It's often noted that one loses one's sense of taste over the course of one's life. To me, it almost seems like the opposite is true because I now notice subtle background flavors that were previously undetectable under a barrage of bitterness. However, I still can't stand black coffee or broccoli.

This bowl of ham and celery could have been the makings of a decent casserole or soup. But today, we are following the instructions from Pillsbury's Meat Cook Book. Because when I want to know exciting and delicious ways to cook meat, I turn to the manufacturers of flour, cake mix, and frozen cookie dough. Surely their mid-sized army of home economists would never lead the modern homemaker into regret. 

I had surprising difficulty finding the one-pound can of cherry pie filling specified in the recipe. I say "surprising" because I'm used to finding that various food package sizes have been ever-so-slightly shaved down in the intervening decades by unscrupulous manufacturers who hope we won't notice or care that we get less food for the same money. I did not expect to find that we got even more cherry pie than the homemakers and ham bakers of the 1970s.

Not that I mind the extra artificial cherry glop that will be going back into the refrigerator. Canned cherry pie is one of those things that I would eat with a spoon right out of the can if I wasn't trying to avoid doubling in size and dabbling in diabetes. Speaking of, the writers of the Pillsbury Meat Cook Book would now like us to take this corn-sweetened scientific triumph and add... more sugar! And also dry mustard.

At this point, we had to make a brief detour and add a little class to this recipe. Unlike all you lazy heathens who just use powdered spices, we at A Book of Cookrye grind our own cloves. Or at least, we do this week since these were the only cloves in the entire spice section of the grocery store. Which brings us to a question: what recipe is popular among home cooks that everyone wants cloves this month?

I did not expect to use a coffee grinder as much as I have since discovering it in the back of a drawer. While it did the job eventually, it wasn't the best thing for cloves, since they got oily and made clumps that stuck to the sides of the little canister. We had to repeatedly dislodge them from the sides so they could actually get cut up.

Meanwhile, back at the canned cherry pie, we are adding lemon juice to our crimes. I refused to bother squeezing lemons for this, so this cherry ham delight gets the cheapest bottled lemon juice in the entire baking aisle. It is weirdly translucent and tastes like artificial lemonade.

At this point, all of our ingredients are ready to go into our foil-lined baking dish! I wondered why the recipe doesn't just say to stir it all together and dump it into the pan. Instead, we put the ham and celery in first, and then delicately spoon the spiced cherries over it. I think they added this pointlessly tedious step so that you, the modern housewife of 1970, didn't feel like you were being lazy by serving your husband and children canned cherry pie with ham in it.

As I tried to level off this fantastic creation of flavors I would have never thought to put together, let's contemplate just what we have in this pan. On the one hand, you could say that the combination of sugar, spices, fruit, and meat is very traditionally British and carried over from the days before we started separating the savory and the sweet. One could technically argue that this has a direct line of ancestry to such Elizabethan favorites as sweet florentines with dried fruit, spices, and kidneys. On the other hand, I described this recipe to one person who said "That sounds Midwest as fuck."

Meanwhile, let's to get to the part of this recipe were the Pillsbury cookbook writers tread on sounder footing: making bread. I'd figured that if we had the dough ready to roll (literally) before getting the ham into the oven, we could get the biscuits cut out and folded over just in time to put them on as scheduled.

I asked myself if we wanted to use the real butter to drop on the middle things. On the one hand, butter always tastes better. On the other hand, we're going to put these biscuits on top of boiling ham syrup. With that in mind, we got out the cheap margarine reserved for toast.

Also, the recipe writers are getting very persnickety in telling us to use a precisely 2.5-inch cutter. Is that the size most people use, and the Pillsbury people just happened to write out the measurement? Did people have sets of biscuit cutters, each with the size stamped on the rim? Did most people trying this recipe just get out a cutter and ignore the given size specification? I did get out the measuring tape (feeling faintly guilty, for reasons I cannot define, for using sewing supplies in the kitchen) to see which of the drinking glasses came the closest, but I did not end up with 2.5-inch diameter biscuits.

As an added recipe note, I made one slight change to the biscuit directions. I've tried to make biscuits where you fold them over before, and they never stay closed. So I brushed on a little ring of milk around the edge to sort of glue them shut. It worked really well, and I'm surprised that the Pillsbury people didn't write in an instruction to do that.

Meanwhile in the oven, we had steam geysers and unnerving smells while the ham and cherries boiled merrily away. Some sort of protein substance, presumably from the ham, had formed slimy deposits on top.

Since we halved the ham-cherry part of this recipe but made the full amount of biscuits, we kind of had to cram them in there. A few of them didn't fit; we put them on a tiny pan next to the main attraction in the oven. You can see how the biscuits nearly tore apart where we folded them. So if you're trying this at home, be sure to carefully fold your biscuits in half lest you break them apart at the crease instead.

I know I rarely do nutritional analysis, but I a little unnerved at the idea of serving this for dinner. There's practically nothing in it that's good for you. If we start at the top of this and make our way down into the pan's bubbling depths, we first find white flour glued together with white shortening. We then find a lot of sugar with the over-processed remains of cherries in it. And also some ham and celery, which are the closest this recipe will come to providing anything that has actual sustenance. A serving of this thing will have the same nutritional value as a slice of store-bought cherry pie with a tiny handful of ham and celery cubes on the side-- and you won't get much ham or celery after we've divided this up into individual portions. Anyone who reads the recipes I like will know I'm not a health nut, but serving this for dinner is right up there with claiming that a big fat squirt of ketchup is good as eating three tomatoes.

That kinda crumpled-looking one is the dough scraps from after biscuit-cutting.


But enough about how you can't make a dinner out of cherry pie (or at least you really shouldn't). While the biscuits on top of the ham still looked gummy and doughy, the handful of extra biscuits we had baked on the side had attained golden perfection, even if they don't look that great piled on top of foil. While we awaited tonight's featured dinner dish, we ate the biscuits. And they are fantastic. I am not surprised that a flour company would put out a good biscuit recipe. We were already agreeing that we should make them again, and sooner than planned. And so, while sated and happy from delicious bread, we withdrew this delight from the oven.

It's a lot runnier than I thought after you get a spoon into it.


As aforementioned, I've been thinking about this recipe off and on for years. I've wondered about this strange combination of cherries, celery, and ham. After all this time sporadically thinking about it, this recipe was disappointingly bland and dull. Baking it for forty minutes turned the ham into hard cubes and the celery into flavorless mush. The spices did not add intriguing flavors; they just made this taste a little musty. Despite adding no salt, this was far too salty from all the ham. This surprised me- after all, if ham is not too salty to eat, why would it turn this into brine? 

I'm not disappointed that this was bad. I am disappointed that it is was bland. On paper, it looks like one of the most bizarre recipes anyone in this millennium could make. But when you eat it, it's just an anticlimactic hot splat of ham cubes in artificial red syrup. The biscuits are pretty good though. We're making those again.


  1. The second I saw the title of this one, my brain immediately went SWEET CHERRY HAM (bah bah bah). Good times never seemed so good inDEED.

    For some reason, eating raw celery always gives me a headache. I think this dish would, too--though I like the idea of cherries and ham. Maybe something with the water-packed cherries in a glaze instead?

    1. That song has been undergoing a just-under-the-radar resurgence of late. I heard a school band play it and everyone in the audience shouted BAH! BAH! BAH! on cue.
      I might try it with non-sugared cherries instead--- but I wouldn't bake it for forty minutes. If anything, I'd cook the sauce on the stove and either stir in the ham and cook just long enough to warm it, or serve them side-by-side on a plate.

  2. The way I always heard it was, children are more sensitive to bitterness in foods than adults. As they get older, the sensitivity fades away, so things that used to be impossibly bitter to them become milder.

    Or so I, not a biologist, learned it.

    1. Experiencing the results have been interesting so far.

  3. "That sounds Midwest as fuck" is now my favorite phrase! So glad you added that quote.

    1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who liked it!

  4. I also liked the "Midwest as fuck" comment. When I first saw this recipe, I immediately thought Minnesota. I'm not sure why. You're brave for trying it. While I think the ham, celery, cherry pie filling combination is pretty dubious, the addition of the dry mustard is what really got me. Oh GAG! Maybe someone came up with this idea because they lived in a home where they did not have a separate dessert plate, and had to eat their pie off their dinner plate to save dishes.

    1. I don't know, but apparently that's where Pillsbury is from. Your guess of how this came to exist makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, this didn't work nearly as well as sausage and maple.