I primarily associate graham crackers with cheesecake and after-school snacks. Traditionally, I have not associated them with meatballs, let alone ham balls, an Iowan delicacy I learned about just a few days ago.
Ham balls are kind of what they sound like—a combination of ground ham and ground beef rolled into balls. Simple enough—but the real twist is in the crumbs, which are not made from stale or dried bread, but from graham crackers. (They’re also coated in a tomato and brown sugar glaze. I love Iowa.) “Isn’t that quite sweet?” you ask. Yes. Yes, it is. But sugar, salt, and fat taste pretty good together. I thought the nutty flavor of graham flour would beautifully with the meat. (I was right.)
Instead of developing my own ham balls (it’s been done) I decided to take the hint and use graham crackers in a simple meatball recipe with a 50/50 mixture of ground beef and pork, plus some kosher salt, white pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. I didn’t soak the crumbs in milk—the ham ball recipe did not call for it, and it didn’t seem necessary, as they were super fine. I mixed everything together, portioned the mixture into balls, then pan fried them in butter until they were browned and cooked through.
They were incredible. The graham cracker crumbs did their job, and did it well. The meatballs were juicy and tender, yet kept their shape while cooking, even when rolled around the pan with a spatula. And yes, they were a little bit sweet.
In fact, the first batch was slightly too sweet for my liking, which is what led to the addition of Worcestershire sauce. The funk from the anchovies and tang from the tamarind counteract out the baking spices and sugar to create a balanced, some might say “nuanced,” ball of meat.
I have a recipe, but you should feel free to play around with meat and graham cracker crumbs yourself. Try substituting half of your usual bread crumbs for graham crackers, or go all-in. I wouldn’t attempt this move with Nona’s meatball recipe (I wouldn’t even broach the topic with Nona, to be honest), but I think it would be right at home in a Swedish meatball riff.
Sweet & Savory Graham Cracker Meatballs (makes about 5 large servings)
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground sausage
- 1 cup of graham cracker crumbs (about 7 whole crackers)
- 1 egg
- 3/4 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 3/4 teaspoon white pepper
- Butter for frying
Mix all ingredients except butter together in a large mixing bowl. Portion the meatballs however you want to portion them—I use this method—but don’t make them much bigger than 1 1/4 inches in diameter.
Melt a tablespoon of butter in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Once the butter starts to foam, add the meatballs, working in batches so as not to crowd them. Cook on all sides until they are browned and there is no pink in the center. (You will have to sacrifice a meatball to inspect it. So goes the life of a cook.) Repeat until you have cooked all the balls, or as many as you would like to eat. (The meatballs mixture keeps very well in the freezer.) Serve with the browned butter from the pan.
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