Ham loaf, the darling of Pennsylvania, is a good way to use up leftovers

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It started out with a simple post on my Facebook page in January, where I noted that I had made a ham loaf with Christmas leftovers.

In the comments section, two friends asked: "What is ham loaf?"

I was surprised.

My first thought was that they must not get to Pennsylvania much (although I know one of them does). My mother is from Pennsylvania, not far from Altoona, and whenever we return to visit, it seems ham loaf is everywhere. They sell it at grocery stores, butcher shops, mini marts; I think you can even buy it at some gas stations. Some places slice it so thin that it's there next to the turkey and salami on sandwich trays at funerals and graduation parties.

Last month my husband and I were out to dinner with friends, seated at a communal table, when the two couples next to us started chatting about the ham loaf the other couple had made.

Like my Facebook friends, one couple went on about how they had never heard of ham loaf. I couldn't help myself and chimed in, "Well, then you must not be from Pennsylvania."

The man who had made the loaf laughed and revealed that he was indeed originally from Sharon, Pa., where his father had made it for many years in a market. We chuckled over the Pennsylvania ham loaf connection, and agreed that a leftover ham loaf sandwich kicked the pants off a leftover meatloaf sandwich.

Then I learned that my own dinner companions also had never heard of ham loaf.

"You make it with leftover ham," I explained.

"Who has leftover ham?" my friend asked.

"Who doesn't?" I replied. (In her defense, her family eats lamb for Easter.)

So I promised the entire group I would write a story at Easter time, telling folks how to make this Pennsylvania staple to use up their leftovers.

Now I realize plenty of readers have made a ham loaf, but the dish certainly doesn't have the local popularity of, say, lard-fried chicken. Made of ground ham and ground pork, topped with a sweet glaze of brown sugar, apple cider vinegar and dry mustard, it just isn't as common here as the traditional meatloaf.

The glaze

It is the glaze that makes the ham loaf.

It is the glaze, sticky and sweet like barbecue sauce, that you will be scraping off the bottom of the pan and fighting over with those gathered around your dinner table. I would strongly advise that no one skip it.I'm sure there are plenty of folks who will read this and call to share their yellowed recipes for ham loaf, and no doubt many of them will also have Pennsylvania roots. But in our current boneless-skinless-chicken breast world, such old-fashioned dishes do seem to have fallen by the wayside.

The classic 1953 edition of the "Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book" has a ham loaf recipe. But by the 1989 edition, it had been reduced to a footnote under the recipe for beef meatloaf.

In the 12th and 15th editions of the cookbook, released in 2002 and 2010, respectively, there is nary a mention of ham loaf, although a recipe for ham balls with barbecue sauce remains.

So perhaps with the help of folks like Gahr and Leach, there is hope for the ham loaf nationally.HOW TO MAKE A LOAF

Now, down to the business of making one.

A ham loaf requires ground ham, and meat grinders aren't the most popular kitchen appliance. The meat grinder attachment to a stand mixer is a worthwhile investment, but in a pinch, a food processor will do. Just remember, a food processor will be chopping the meat instead of grinding it, so the loaf may have a coarser texture than one made with ground ham.

Some butcher shops stock ground ham, and others will grind some for you on request, which means it is possible to make a ham loaf outside the leftover boundaries of a major ham-eating holiday.

If you go searching for a recipe you're likely to find fairly simple ones that call for equal parts of ground ham and ground pork, with some eggs, bread or cracker crumbs and milk. These are fine, but for my taste, they lack a certain oomph, relying completely on the glaze for taste. The recipe I have developed calls for a bit more spice in the mix, as well as some quick cooking oats, which hold moisture better than bread crumbs.

Because leftover ham is typically on the dry side, ham loaf often isn't as moist as a good meatloaf, so the oats and the ground pork go a long way in adding moisture.

I prefer a ratio of more ham to pork, but if you don't have a lot of leftover ham, using equal parts of ham and pork still will produce a fine loaf.

The rest is as simple as putting together a meatloaf. So give my recipe a try and don't be surprised if your friends start to wonder if you were originally from Pennsylvania.

Ham Loaf

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

1 3/4 lbs. ground ham

1 1/4 lbs. ground pork

1/2 cup quick cooking oatmeal

1/2 cup plain bread crumbs

1 small chopped onion

3 eggs, well beaten

1/4 tsp. allspice

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/4 tsp. dry mustard

2 tsp. yellow mustard

1 1/2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1 cup milk, more if needed

For the glaze:

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tsp. dry mustardIn a large bowl, combine ham, pork, oats, bread crumbs, and onion. Using clean hands, mix until combined.

Add allspice, pepper, dry mustard, yellow mustard and parsley to eggs and mix well with a fork. Add egg mixture and milk to meat mixture and continue mixing with hands until well combined.

Mixture should be moist and very soft. If too dry, add up to 1/2 cup of extra milk.

Form into one large loaf (or two smaller ones). One large loaf should fit perfectly into a 9-by-13-inch rectangular pan.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine glaze ingredients and stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Mixture will be thin.

Pour about one-third of glaze over ham loaf. Cover with foil and bake for 50 minutes. Uncover and pour remaining glaze over loaf, basting frequently until glaze begins to get thick and sticky and ham loaf is browned and cooked through completely, about 30 minutes longer for a large loaf.

Note: Can be made with 1 1/2 pounds each of ground ham and pork. Raw ham loaf freezes well. Thaw loaf in refrigerator and bake according to instructions above.