Scrapple is a Pennsylvania Dutch passion, not a New York City thing. Apparently some restaurant chefs are experimenting with it now, and it’s intermittently available in some retail places, but it’s far from a grocery staple here. A few years ago, visiting Philadelphia, I bought farm-made scrapple from a stand at Reading Terminal Market. It was scrumptious, and no commercial kind I’ve been able to find has equaled it. (Supermarkets down in Cape May, New Jersey, where Tom and I go birding, carry several brands but they’re nowhere near as good.)
The solution, obviously, was to make my own. James Villas’s Country Cooking has a recipe for scrapple that the author says he started making years ago in an 18th-century farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. That’s an appropriate provenance for the dish – though Villas himself is a southerner by birth and a glamour-loving bon vivant by preference. Still, he has always championed American cooking and the recipe sounded promising, so I went with it.
The main meat ingredient for the recipe was pork neck bones. I’d never made their acquaintance before but, somewhat to my surprise, a local market had them. They were nice-looking meaty pieces, not very fatty, kind of like bone-in chunks of lamb or goat for stew.
The second meat ingredient was calf’s liver. This seemed oddly elegant for a rustic dish. I thought the earliest recipes might well have called for pork liver and I was going to use that instead, but it was impossible to find locally, even though every hog has to have one. It probably goes into pet food. So calf’s liver it was.
On Saturday afternoon the two meats went into a big pot with water and salt, and cooked for about two hours, until the neck meat was loosening from the bones. Then I strained the cooking liquid, cleaned all the pork off the bones, and ground the meats in the food processor.
Next the recipe said to combine cornmeal with the cooking liquid and “stir until no longer lumpy.” Wait a minute, I said to myself. This is just like making polenta, and there’s no need to have lumps. So I slowly showered the cornmeal into the liquid as I stirred, which kept it smooth the entire time, and then added the ground meat and the seasonings: minced onions, a minced hot pepper, chopped sage leaves, thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Now came the tricky part – simmering the mixture “for about 45 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking and lumping.” The recipe made that seem a modest job, but there was absolutely no way to keep the stuff from sticking. I didn’t have lumps, but every five minutes I had to go in with a wooden spatula and painstakingly scrape up the brown crust that kept forming on the bottom. Luckily, I always caught it before it actually burned on, so when stirred in, the scraped-up crust was softened and absorbed. It might even have improved the flavor.
The mixture stayed quite moist, and I had no idea how to tell when it was cooked enough. But I figured it would thicken as it cooled, so I eventually took it off the stove, spooned it all into a nonstick loaf pan (which, to be doubly on the safe side, I’d greased with lard), and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
You may wonder why I haven’t posted pictures of any of the cooking stages. You wouldn’t enjoy them. Trust me, making scrapple is not pretty to look at.
In the morning I went to unmold the loaf for slicing. Good thing I’d done the greasing: I had to set the pan in hot water for a minute to get the contents to slide out. Here, I’ll finally show it to you:
Heavy, grayish and boring, isn’t it? But crisped and browned in butter, my scrapple looked much more appealing.
And accompanied by sunnyside-up eggs, home fries, and English muffins, it made a thoroughly satisfying Sunday breakfast.
The flavor was excellent. All the spices had combined nicely to make the scrapple more than plainly porky. I’d call it the second best scrapple I’ve ever had.
Surprisingly, it could have used more fat; there was hardly any in the entire mixture. Also, the texture was a little too smooth; next time I’ll use a meat grinder rather than a food processor. Finally, I’d been too tentative with the salt and pepper, maybe even with the hot pepper. I’ve heavily annotated the recipe page for next time. And there will be a next time – as soon as we finish the rest of this batch, which is now wrapped and waiting in the freezer.