Ham has long been a holiday obsession for Billy Allin, the chef-owner of Cakes and Ale, a Decatur, Georgia, favorite (now closed). He first encountered the version that would come to define his Christmas as a teenager in Greenwood, South Carolina. Each year, his family’s friends the Harmons would soak a country ham in a cooler on their back porch for days, then coat it with a mixture of mustard and brown sugar. The resulting glaze would settle into the pan drippings, rendering a thick, sweet cousin of redeye gravy draping slices Allin couldn’t wait to snag.
“From the time I was fifteen until I was in college, we went over to the Harmons’ house and had that ham,” he says. “It’d be sitting out on their table with this glaze dripping all over it, and you would grab a biscuit, too. Pretty soon you were just digging into the glaze, it was so good.”
These days Allin doesn’t fuss with soaking the salt out of a country ham. He substitutes a good-quality, bone-in precooked ham, which gets a little added character from some whole cloves punched into the surface. But it’s the mustard, brown sugar, and vinegar glaze he slathers on top that’s the transformative element. Together with a bit of black pepper, the ingredients blend into a tangy gloss-coat that borrows the best flavors of a honey-baked ham and a South Carolina–style pork barbecue sauce.
For the accompanying biscuits, Allin likes an airy buttermilk drop version to mop up that glaze, a recipe he picked up from a neighbor when the family took a brief detour to live in Jacksonville, Florida. “I can’t even explain how tender they are,” he says. “They stay together just long enough to get into your mouth.”
For a holiday party, you could certainly make a traditional rolled biscuit, which would hold up better as a sandwich stuffed with ham and glaze. Or stick with Allin’s method and serve the ham family-style with tender drop biscuits piled high on the side. Either way, the trick is waiting long enough for any of it to reach the table. Often, Allin ends up standing in the kitchen over a pan of hot ham and dunking a just-baked biscuit into the pool of glaze right then and there. “That,” he says, “is my Christmas tradition.”