Before Lent comes Mardi Gras and with it: beads, parades, parties and lots of eating and drinking. Baked ham is a traditional Southern dish that easily feeds a crowd and is perfect for Mardi Gras get-togethers with friends and family.

Southern chef Virginia Willis grew up eating baked ham her grandmother made with Coca-Cola, mustard and brown sugar.

“Coca-Cola is to the South like Guinness is is to Dublin,” she says. “It's more than a beverage; it's also an ingredient. From a culinary standpoint, Coca-Cola has a sweet caramel flavor with an undertone of orange and pairs nicely with ham, a meat that marries well with sweet."

While Willis uses Coca-Cola in recipes for glazed ribs and with chicken wings, her baked ham while inspired by the flavors of her grandmother's recipe, offers a twist on that traditional dish. She uses honey, Minute Maid orange juice, and bourbon “a trifecta of sweet, sour, and bitter that blossoms with the salty ham.”

And for dessert? Willis recalls the King Cakes of her youth, “a buttery-rich, sugary cake with a (tiny plastic) baby baked inside.”

If you haven't purchased a ham before, Willis says the main key to buying ham is to knowing which ham to buy. “Ham can be fresh, cured, or smoked,” she said.

Fresh ham is pale pink to beige after cooking. Cured ham, often called “city ham”, is usually deep pink as a result of the curing process. Dry-cured ham like country ham, Italian prosciutto, or Spanish Serrano is deep pink to mahogany red. A whole ham is essentially the entire back leg of the hog, enough to feed an entire Mardi Gras krewe.

Unless you need to feed a small army, Willis recommends buying a half ham instead, and prefers bone-in over boneless ham for more flavor (and a bone for the soup pot).

Angie Mosier

Willis was raised in Georgia and Louisiana and trained in France and her recipes and many cookbooks reflect her French techniques but also her Southern roots. “I was exposed to classic Southern cooking at an early age,” she said. “We moved to Louisiana when I was very young. My mother didn't know anyone so she started cooking from the Louisiana Junior League cookbooks. I grew up eating wild duck gumbo, seafood étouffée, red beans and rice, and of course, crawfish. Mama has always been adventurous in her cooking. I was the kid who took leftover crepes or homemade egg rolls to school for lunch. My grandmother grounded me in the classics and my mother exposed me to a greater world of food.”

Willis has cooked with famous chefs and worked behind the scenes on TV shows. She recently announced her own cooking show in the works. “Secrets of the Southern Table” will bring to life the rich culture and multi-faceted stories behind Southern food and cooking. It's the cuisine of the traditional South, combined with the vibrant new cooking of the modern South. Reflective of her own experience, it's an exploration of centuries-old ancient foodways and bold new direction from immigrants and international influences.

“I want to share the real stories of the South,” she said. “We're a rich, agrarian culture with centuries old foodways. It's more than what people outside the region perceive. Fried chicken and biscuits are a truth, a delicious truth, but not the only truth.” The series will debut in the first quarter of 2017.

Mardi Gras Bourbon Orange Baked Ham

Serves 10-12

1 Tablespoon canola oil, for the pan

Half of a semi-boneless, ready-to-eat ham, 5-6 pounds, preferably shank end

1 cup honey (preferably tupelo, orange blossom or clover)

1/4 cup bourbon

1/2 cup Minute Maid orange juice

2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 350°F degrees. Brush a large roasting pan with the oil.

To prepare the ham, remove the skin and fat. Using a sharp knife make 1/4-inch deep cuts in the meat in a diamond pattern. Place the ham in the prepared roasting pan, Meanwhile, to make the glaze, heat the honey, bourbon, orange juice, and mustard in a saucepan over medium heat until golden and reduced to about 1 1/2 cups.

Pour over the prepared ham the warm bourbon glaze. Transfer to the oven and cook, basting every 30 minutes or so with the glaze on the bottom of the pan, for approximately 2-2/12 hours or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest portion registers 140°F degrees. If the ham starts to overbrown, loosely tent with aluminum foil to prevent it from burning.

Remove from the oven to a rack. Tent the ham loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute. Transfer to a cutting board, carve, and serve.

Adapted and reprinted by permission from Bon Appétit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.