One of the most challenging and irksome things about writing recipes is that they, like their authors, are imperfect. But unlike their authors, once they hit print, they're static. We humans aren't: We're constantly learning and evolving—and that includes what we do in the kitchen.
The truth is, not one of us is ever completely educated. The only ways we stop learning are by either willfully refusing new information or dying. If we're breathing and paying attention, we're always coming into contact with something we've never seen, thought about, or imagined.
A good cook never stops learning—that's why they are good. Even if all we ever cook is a rotation of the same limited set of dishes, if we're focused on what we're doing, we're bound to pick up something we haven't noticed before. The changes often happen unconsciously as we take a simpler path or, by pure accident, pick up a technique that works better.
And there's the trouble for those of us who commit our cooking methods to print: we can't take it back. I freely admit that there are few of my printed recipes that still outline the way I make the dish today. I'll take out a recipe I've not looked at in years for reference and find that what's on the page is no longer the way I've been doing it.
That's not to say the recipe is invalid or wrong: it still works, but it might work better if there was a way to share the things I've learned with time and experience.
The old pantry staple that follows is a good example. A rather lackluster version of it was included in my first cookbook; a revised (and much better) one appeared in that book's second edition; a still more improved version found its way into my volume on ham in the University of North Carolina Press's Savor the South series.
When I got out that last recipe to make a batch for the holidays, something made me also take out one of the historical recipes that had inspired it. That's when I noticed that the old recipes not only called for the crock in which it was stored to be sealed with clarified butter, they also called for the paste to be made with it. Assuming that refrigeration made using clarified butter obsolete, I'd made every one of my recipes with whole butter.
It made me wonder: Could there have been a reason for using clarified butter other than extending the shelf life of the paste? Yes, as it turned out, there was. The paste was tastier and had a better texture. There was also a reason for using less butter than the wanton proportions that I'd had in each and every one of my recipes.
Well. I can't take back those old recipes, but here's a version that's not only more faithful to history but a lot better to eat.
Potted or Deviled Ham
"Potting" was originally devised as a way of recycling and preserving leftover scraps of meat or cheese, but the product became an end in itself and was once a winter holiday staple.
Nineteenth century Georgia cookbook author Annabella P. Hill first put any meat that she potted through a meat grinder, then beat it to a paste with clarified butter in a mortar and pestle. While the texture isn't quite the same, the food processor makes short work of the job, and doesn't involve any of the "elbow grease" that she and Dr. Kitchener deemed the key to success.
Sealing it with clarified butter isn't necessary if the paste is refrigerated unless you don't plan to use it for a couple of weeks. I've given that finish as optional here.
The traditional Southern way to eat this spread is on beaten biscuits, but those have become almost an anachronism in the South today. Never mind: it's lovely on hot regular biscuits, and is an ideal spread for tea sandwiches and cocktail canapés, or simply as a cocktail appetizer served directly from the crock with toast or crackers.
Makes about 2 cups, or about 20 servings
2 cups roughly chopped cooked ham, preferably country ham
2 tablespoons bourbon or brandy
6 ounces (¾ cup) best quality unsalted butter, clarified (see notes), plus 2 more ounces for coating the paste, optional
Dry mustard powder
Whole nutmeg in a grater
1. Put the ham in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse until ground fine. Add a tablespoon of bourbon and the butter and process until it's a smooth paste. Season with several dashes of cayenne, a couple of pinches of mustard powder, and freshly grated nutmeg, all to taste. Pulse to mix, then taste and adjust the seasonings.
2. Press the paste into a clean crock, glass jar, or other storage container. To finish it as was traditionally done, cover it with a thick layer of clarified butter. Cover and refrigerate until half an hour or so before serving.
3. To serve, let it soften at room temperature for at least half an hour, or until it's spreadable. If you've covered it with a coating of clarified butter, it can be removed before serving.
Note: To Clarify Butter—Put the butter into the smallest saucepan that will hold it comfortably and let it melt over medium low heat. Remove it from the heat and let it settle and cool, then chill it until the fat solidifies. Discard the whey and under cold running water rinse away any white solids that are clinging to the bottom of the fat. Wrap it well and return it to the refrigerator until needed. Or, put the butter in a measuring cup, cover it was plastic wrap, and microwave it until the fat is just melted. Let it settle and cool, then refrigerate and finish it in the same way.