My love of Swedish ham balls is so primal that I wonder if the aroma of the sauce cooking is what made me realize there might be a reason to move on from breast milk. These sweet, sumptuous balls quickly became my yearly birthday tradition.
When you grow up in Minnesota and your birthday is in December, you need something to anticipate. For me, that was ham balls. Grandma Ivy would make them again for Christmas and sometimes for the big lutefisk dinner in East Union, Minn., at the Lutheran Church. We were forced to eat a few bites of gelatinous lutefisk floating in a tasteless milky sauce before we could help ourselves to the ham balls.
I didn’t cook them myself until I finally met the first man who I really wanted to impress. Knowing I would need something irresistible and unusual, I called Mom and asked for Grandma Ivy’s recipe. Ever since then, I have been perfecting the production of these luscious balls. Mom did give me a crucial hint: keep basting and turning them, especially the last half hour. You have to keep them rolling to get the correct consistency.
Other tips I learned myself the hard way. Do not use a tin pan to cook them; the sauce will burn in the corners. Don’t over-mix the balls or they will be too smooth. You might need a little less milk so the mix doesn’t get soupy. Grind your own ham and pork so you can control how much fat goes in. Dry good bread for the cubes and make them small (but bigger than panko). Use cider vinegar. Experiment with the ball size. And again, watch them like a hawk after 30 minutes.
All of my close friends and their spouses have dined on ham balls. I proudly served them to Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug and his wife. Though Norwegian, they were very complimentary. I once hosted a big Swedish theme dinner in Texas, where I live, and ham balls were the centerpiece. It was a huge success. In graduate school, we invited my favorite English professor and his wife for dinner and the unexpected highlight of the evening was Swedish ham balls as hors d’oeuvres. I don’t remember what the main course was, but I do recall serving the Minnesota dessert staple: chopped-up Jell-O mixed with Cool Whip.
The ham ball recipe is a treasured family heirloom and is copied directly from my fragile yellowed recipe card. I have been to many Swedish smorgasbords, and am proud to say that I have never had a ham ball that rivaled these. When my brother found out that I was sharing it in a cookbook of nurses’ recipes, he went ballistic. He is adamant that the recipe remain a strict secret, shared only with blood relatives. I shudder to think what he will do when he finds out about this article.
My brothers and I secretly and savagely critique each other’s ham balls – bland texture or runny sauce, too dry, not enough brown sugar. Last year, I returned to Minnesota with my newly married brother and his wife to visit our other brother and meet one niece’s new husband, another niece’s new baby. We were all served – what else – Swedish ham balls. A blistering critique ensued on the ride home.
– Rose Eder
Community member Rose Eder grew up in Minnesota and lives in Texas, where she is a neonatal nurse. She is a scuba diver and loves to read and write poetry. She has traveled to over 60 countries, which has turned her into an unabashed food enthusiast.
Rose Eder lives in Texas but continues to make the Swedish ham balls she grew up with in Minnesota. This is her grandmother's recipe. She says they go well with potatoes au gratin. She also says her brother, Dan, will kill her when he finds out she's shared the recipe.
- 1 pound ground ham
- 1 ½ pounds ground pork
- 2 cups bread crumbs
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- I scant cup milk
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- ½ cup water
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Combine the ham, pork, bread crumbs, eggs and milk. Roll into balls and place in a baking dish.
To make the sauce, dissolve the ingredients and pour over the meatballs. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, basting frequently