When I was in college, I stayed for a little while in a village in Hungary. I lived with this amazing family whose last name was Kovacs, but that’s not really very unique in Hungary, because literally everyone’s name is Kovacs. It translates to “Smith” and people named, for instance, Karoly Kovacs would translate their names into English when introducing themselves, like “I’m Charlie Smith.” I assure you, you’re not.
It was very odd, and also very endearing.
I remember one day my host sister Nora and I were walking down the street to school and she said she was hungry and we should go get some fruit. I asked her where they go to get fruit, since there was no real store in the village. She looked at me like I was the dumbest person on Earth and said “From the trees!”
It’s true, where I was in Hungary, a village called Ajak, there was an abundance of fruit trees of all kinds. Every family had a little plot and had either plum or apricot trees, and sour cherry trees lined the streets. I had never lived in a place where it was common for people to just go out with a giant pale and harvest cherries for lunchtime meggyleves (chilled sour cherry and rice soup), though I very much took to the idea and was soon climbing in people’s trees with Nora to forage for a snack. I kept asking if Nora knew the people whose fruit we were stealing, which was absurd because of course she knew them because she knew everyone. But it was a moment I realized how very American I was, specifically my preoccupation with private property. Nora took the attitude that food is just food, and no one should get too bent out of shape if you’re taking some – it’s not like you’re killing someone by trespassing and taking their food.
One Saturday, Nora and her sister Kinga took me to a neighbor’s house because there was gossip that the neighbor was making jam. When we rolled up, I saw one of those giant Rubbermaid trash cans filled to the top with apricots. We walked through the front door into the tiny kitchen and it was packed – nearly 20 people had heard and had come to watch or help. Some people were chopping apricots, some were washing jars and others were just chatting and taking up space despite the jam lady’s annoyance. I went to an empty corner and just smiled at people like an idiot. I couldn’t help it, I was so happy. This lady was about to make a garbage can full of jam, and I was going to get to watch. Best day ever.
It is my opinion that you have not lived until you have had this jam. I could drink it. When I die, I think I would like to be shellacked in it. It is better than any bullshit apricot jam or preserve I’ve ever had anywhere else. It is delicious on palacsinta, Hungarian crepes, mixed into yogurt or ice cream for a treat, in a marinade, added to cocktails, and just plain on toast. And you could just eat it out of the jar, by the spoonful, which is what I do. Every Hungarian I ever met either made this jam at home or bought it from a jam lady, along with an equally simple strawberry preserve. They would go through a jar in a day.
Now, I should tell you I don’t really care for apricots, generally.
Okay okay, I like them dried, or I like apricot flavored things. Just the actual fruit doesn’t do anything for me, because it pretty much tastes like nothing. But something magical happens when you concentrate the flavor, and this jam, to me, is the way apricots are supposed to be consumed.
It’s also ridiculously simple. Two ingredients: sugar and apricots. Apricot skin has natural pectin, which will help make it jammy, but as a head’s up this is a fairly runny jam. It’s sweet and tart and bursting with flavor.
So to begin, I think jam turns out the best when you give it a little head start.
Once I’ve pitted and coarsely chopped my apricots, I toss them in sugar to coat them, and then stick them in the fridge overnight. You do not have to do this, but I do. When they come out the next day, they’re already halfway to Jamstown.
Then, they just go on the stove – bring to boil, reduce to simmer – until they become jammified (about 45 min), stirring occasionally. Then blend or mash to your desired consistency.
Now, at this point, we botulism-obsessed germaphobic Americans would either hot process this for long term storage or just put it in the fridge and eat it within a few days. Every Hungarian I know who makes this jam, however, pours it into sterilized jars, puts the lids on, and then huddle them together wrapped in several blankets to let it cool slowly, which is said to seal the jar and ready it for storage. I neither endorse nor deny the safety of this method. This jam needs to be eaten within a few days of making it, and I doubt you’ll have a problem with that. But if you don’t know the basics of canning, you might want to consider cutting the recipe in half unless you’ve got a lot of mouths around your breakfast table.
3 lbs of apricots (this makes about 3 cups of jam), pitted and coarsely chopped
2/3 cup of white sugar (this is really a guestimate, and depends on how sweet your apricots are)
- In a heavy-bottommed pot (I used an enameled cast iron saucepan), combine the apricots and sugar and stir to coat. I let this sit overnight in the fridge to get the juices flowing, but it’s not necessary. If you start it straight on the stove, just make sure there are a few tablespoons of water in the bottom of the pot so the sugar and fruit don’t start burning.
- Place the pot, uncovered, on the stove and turn your heat to high. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce to simmer. At first you’ll see a bunch of scummy foam on top, which will disappear as the jam simmers.
- Stir the jam about once every 5 minutes. The fruit should begin to breakdown, and as the jam becomes thicker, stir more often to avoid burning it. This whole process should take about 30-40 minutes, but make sure you’re keeping an eye on it.
- Using an immersion blender or a potato masher, blend or mash the remaining fruit. I like mine perfectly smooth, so I blend like my life depended on it.
- Test the jam by taking a small spoonful of it and dripping it down a plate. It shouldn’t run right down the plate as it cools, and if it does, keep it simmering for a little while longer until you’ve reached your desired thickness. It should be a beautiful orange color. Taste the jam for desired sweetness and make adjustments – it should be sharp and bright tasting and not overly sweet.
- Pour into sterilized jars or hot process for storage.