Editor’s note: A previous version of this story unfavorably compared Hanukkah to Christmas, and we apologize for any offense that caused. This article has been updated.

I blame my love of Christmas on two things: my Soviet upbringing and my high school boyfriend’s mom. Perhaps, because it so closely resembles New Year’s celebrations in the former U.S.S.R., where I spent the first 10 years of my life, Christmas has a special meaning in my heart. Adapted for the secular masses, New Year’s in Russia was basically Christmas stripped of religious trappings. We had it all: the New Year’s tree, the Soviet version of the Santa Claus (a.k.a. Grandpa Frost), the songs, the festivities. The seed was planted.

To my high school boyfriend’s mom, Christmas was about celebrating with her family and friends and bringing people together. There was little, if any, religious dogma about it and so much contagious joy, I couldn’t help but fall for the holiday, hook, line and sinker. Her Christmas came with plenty of eggnog, roast goose and fig pudding, which no one ate because it contained suet (rendered beef fat), and no one likes suet. (For the record: I ate it to be polite and because I would’ve done anything for that woman.) But her love of the holiday was infectious. Decades later, I’m still a sucker for all the trappings: the decorated tree, eggnog and a festive Christmas dinner where I like to serve ham.

I love ham with shameless abandon, and even though it’s not a food that my kashrut-following ancestors ate (as well as my own in-laws), I’m an equal-opportunity eater. If it tastes good, I want it on my plate. And ham tastes really, really good. Spiral-cut ham takes the conundrum out of slicing it (not my forte), and making a fun and delicious glaze is my way of sprucing up something I’m really just warming up. This time around, inspired by America’s Test Kitchen, I played with the flavors of port and cherries, and because this pairing can get real cloying real fast, I threw in a few star anise pods to inch the glaze closer to the savory side. I couldn’t quit the classic honey ham, and so instead of brown sugar, I used honey, and a honey-port-cherry glaze was born. I regret nothing.

To round out the porky goodness, I wanted a side dish as impressive as it was easy to make, and special enough to feel celebratory. Pommes Anna fit the bill. With just five ingredients and barely any hands-on time, these potatoes practically cook themselves. All you need to do is slice them very thinly, then brush each layer with melted butter and season with salt and pepper and thyme. Then you put it in the oven and forget about it for about an hour. A classic Pommes Anna gets inverted, but I am a lazy cook and also am not a fan of getting burned by hot butter. So I throw tradition out the window and leave them in the skillet. The potatoes emerge gloriously browned and crispy around their curled little edges.

Because glazed ham and butter-bathed potatoes are hardly health foods, and because I seek balance in all things, I believe in a good, hearty, crunchy salad to counter the fat and the sodium you’re about to ingest. And because tender lettuces aren’t exactly in season, hardy weather calls for hardy greens, such as radicchio, endive and frisée. Paired with juicy pears (which benefit from a light marinade from the citrusy date vinaigrette), crunchy pistachios and mildly briny ricotta salata, this is a salad that sings and makes you reach for another forkful. Each bite, bursting with flavor, is pleasantly bitter, sweet, tart, salty, crunchy and herby all at once.

Of course, we need to save room for dessert, in this case a beloved English dish, Banoffee (bananas plus toffee) Pie. To the uninitiated, banoffee pie was invented in the 1970s at the Hungry Monk in East Sussex, and is a chilled treat consisting of crust and layers of banana, dulce de leche and whipped cream. Heaven. Though it requires a bit of planning, making it involves mostly just chilling various ingredients. When you pass banoffee pie around the table, squeals of delight and requests for seconds follow.

Ending a holiday dinner on such a sweet note will make for a very merry Christmas, indeed.


  • One (14-pound) spiral sliced ham
  • 2/3 cup ruby port
  • 1 to 2 whole star anise
  • 3/4 cup mild honey
  • 2/3 cup cherry preserves
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Step 1

Unwrap the ham and discard the plastic disc covering the bone. Place the ham in a plastic oven bag, pull tightly for a close fit, tie the bag up, and trim the excess plastic. Set the ham cut-side down in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and make 4 slits in the top of the bag with a paring knife. Alternatively, place the unwrapped ham cut-side down in the baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour 30 minutes.

Step 2

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250 degrees with the rack in the lower third. Bake the ham until the center registers about 100 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 3 1/2 hours (about 14 minutes per pound if using a plastic bag and about 17 minutes per pound if using foil), depending on the size of ham.

Step 3

While the ham is warming up, prepare the glaze: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the port and star anise to a simmer and cook until reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 4 minutes. Add the honey, preserves, pepper and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick, syrupy and reduced to about 1 1/4 cup, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Step 4

When the ham hits 100 degrees, carefully remove from the oven and cut open the oven bag. Spoon the glaze on the ham and brush it all over. Return to the oven for 15 minutes and repeat the glazing process. Keep the ham in the oven until it reaches 115 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes longer.

Step 5

Remove the ham from the oven and let it rest in the baking dish for a few minutes. Slice and serve immediately with the remaining glaze.

Adapted from “The New Best Recipe” by Cook’s Illustrated (America’s Test Kitchen, 2004).

Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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Calories: 470; Total Fat: 28 g; Saturated Fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 150 mg; Sodium: 105 mg; Carbohydrates: 9 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 9 g; Protein: 43 g.