Dijon Ham & Cheese Loaf

Before my wedding, I was faced with an important decision: Whether or not I’d keep my last name, Whalen, or take Sean’s instead.

I’ve never felt a particular affinity for my last name one way or another. In school, Whalen often relegated me to the ends of lines and the back corners of classrooms. Even in adulthood, Whalen was hard to pronounce — I was forever telling customer service people that I was “like a Whale in the ocean with an N on the end.” But it also wasn’t a bad name. My signature looked nice when I spelled it out, and it didn’t have any weird meanings. But there’s a deciding factor, one I thought a lot about when I was making the decision of whether or not to keep my name: Genetically, I’m not a Whalen at all.

When my dad was very young, his father, Raymond Bartholomew, died of cancer. Although my dad was too young to remember him, the few pictures my grandma keeps show that my real grandfather was a lawyer, a military man, and an almost exact visual replica of my father. My dad Ray was even named after his father, likely to inspire in him the desire to live out the legacy of the grandfather I never knew. When my dad was a toddler, my grandma remarried and they all took the new stepfather’s last name: Whalen. And that’s how my brother and my mom and I became Whalens — not by blood, but by marriage.

I grew up with this story in the backdrop of my life, never quite certain of whether it mattered to me or not. During a family tree project in elementary school, I remember putting my Grandpa Bartholomew’s name in red, with a dotted line around it to symbolize that he’d died. I had another grandpa to put next to him, though, so it didn’t strike me as worrying — my family tree wasn’t as complicated as some of the others anyway. When we researched family crests in middle school, I remember enthusiastically discovering that Bartholomew was a royal name. A search for Whalen came up mostly blank.

When I was about 12, we actually attended a Bartholomew family reunion. My dad still kept in touch with my grandfather’s brother and he’d had invited us to get to know his sons and daughters and their children — my dad’s cousins, and my second cousins. When we got to the reunion, I remember thinking that my dad fit in like a glove, which I’d never seen before. Jason and I fit right in, too — there were girls my age, and boys Jason’s age to play with. I don’t know if the weekend was weird for my parents, but my memories of it are full of laughter and fun and food and fitting in.

When I was faced with the decision of whether or not to change my name, I thought about all of this and decided that I wasn’t very attached to Whalen. Signing my new name, Gritters, on my new social security card felt oddly unemotional, neither here nor there.

Names are important, yes. But our names don’t often tell the stories of our mother’s bloodlines, or the stories of how our ancestors changed their names to fit into American culture. They don’t show the sudden deaths in our families or the remarriages. They don’t explain why we sometimes fit into our families and sometime stick out. I’m a Gritters now, but I’m still a Whalen and a Batholomew, and a little bit of a Sadler, too. And with each of those names, each of those bloodlines, come stories and recipes from the people who’ve raised me.

I’ll be sharing many of these recipes, but my first Whalen recipe is one of the best. It’s the dish my mom makes when people are sick, when they have surgery, when a loved one dies, when we need something soothing. It’s on our table every Christmas evening for dinner. If you’ve lived with me, you’ve probably tasted it. It’s the dish my husband asks for most often, a recipe to make when you want to impress someone. It’s a braided bread loaf threaded with ham and cheese, melty and salty and sweet and savory all at once. It’s a piece of the Whalen in me that no last name can ever take away.

Dijon Ham and Cheese Loaf

Or: The meal a Whalen will make for you if he or she loves you.
Makes about 12 slices, or 6 servings.
  • 3 cups of flour
  • 2 T sugar
  • 2 packages (4.5 t) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup dijon mustard
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped ham
  • 3 cups shredded swiss cheese
  • 1 egg, beaten

Mix the flour, sugar and yeast in the large bowl of a standing mixer. In a saucepan on the stove, heat water, butter, and dijon mustard to approx. 125 degrees F (you can use a meat thermometer to gage the temperature). Then, stir the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Using a dough hook (or your hands), knead the dough for 4-5 minutes, until elastic-y and smooth.

Grease a baking sheet and dump the dough onto it. Lightly flour the dough, then roll it out until it’s about an inch thick and shaped like a giant rectangle. Then, make cuts along the edges of the dough, leaving an uncut area in the middle for the ham and cheese. You’ll want to cut the same number of strips on each side of the rectangle, each about an inch thick.

Next, fill the center of the loaf with ham and cheese. Bring the opposite strips together, one at a time, twisting them and placing the ends across the top of the bread.

Once the entire loaf is braided, cover it with a damp cloth and let it rise in a warm place for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees once your timer goes off, then brush the loaf with beaten egg (this will help it become golden brown) and a sprinkle of sea salt. Put it in the oven at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.

You’ll be able to tell when the loaf is done because the bread will sound hollow when you tap on it with your finger. Cut the loaf into 2-inch thick slices, and serve with a green salad. You can also freeze a loaf if you’re cooking for yourself and don’t think you’ll eat it all in one sitting.

**I’ve made this with roasted veggies and provolone cheese; chipotle chicken and smoked gouda; roasted turkey and provolone with red pepper spread; and many other things — it’s always good! Get creative.

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