A holiday ham is certainly a special and traditional centerpiece of Christmas dinner. Since hams are sold fully cooked, the only task for the cook is to glaze the ham and warm it up. If you are serving a large crowd, say, 16 to 20 guests, then you might consider buying a whole ham which includes both the shank half and the butt half, and weighs about 14 to 18 pounds. Otherwise, for a gathering of 10 or so, I prefer to buy a half-ham and look for the butt half or upper part of the ham because it is more tender and tastier than the shank half. Read the label on the ham or ask your butcher for a slow-dry-cured and natural-wood-smoked ham with no water added.
Serves 10 to 12
1 (7 to 9 pounds) bone-in smoked ham preferably the butt or upper half
24 to 30 whole cloves
1 1/2 cups packed golden brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons dry mustard
5 tablespoons bourbon whiskey plus an additional tablespoon for the sauce (optional)
3 1/2 cups apple cider
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
Remove the ham from the refrigerator 2 hours before you plan to bake it so the meat can come to room temperature. Using a sharp boning knife, trim away any skin and all but 1/4 inch of the external fat from the ham. Set the ham fat side up, and make parallel cuts 1/2 inch deep and 1 1/2 inches apart all over the ham. Give the ham a quarter-turn and repeat to produce a cross-hatched diamond-like pattern. Stick a clove in the center of each of the diamonds.
In a small bowl, mix the sugar, mustard, and bourbon into a paste and rub it all over the ham. Set the ham, fat side up, on a rack in a roasting pan just large enough to hold it without crowding. Set aside loosely covered with plastic wrap until ready to bake.
About 30 minutes prior to baking the ham, position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Add enough apple cider to the pan to reach a 1/4-inch depth, about 2 1/2 cups of cider. Bake the ham, uncovered, basting the ham at least twice, and adding the remaining apple cider to maintain a 1/4-inch depth, until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the center of the ham without touching bone reaches 120°F, 1 3/4 to 2 hours. (It should take about 15 minutes per pound for the ham to reach an internal temperature between 120° and 125°F.)
Transfer the ham to a carving board or warmed platter and tent with foil. Let the ham rest for 20 minutes to allow the juices to set.
Meanwhile, pour the pan juices into a 4-cup heatproof measuring cup. Set aside for 5 minutes to allow the fat to rise to the top. Spoon off the fat and discard. Pour the pan juices into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Whisk in the maple syrup and pinch of cayenne pepper. Taste the sauce. If the flavor is concentrated and tasty, then whisk in half the cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce. If the sauce tastes thin, then simmer the sauce for a few minutes to reduce the pan juices and concentrate the flavors. Taste again, and then whisk in half the cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce. If needed, whisk in the remaining cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce. Add a tablespoon of bourbon to the sauce, if desired. Transfer the sauce to a warmed gravy boat.
Use a sharp carving knife to cut the ham into thin slices and serve immediately. Accompany the ham with the pan sauce.