I’ve always viewed jam making to be more of an art or a science. In the US, it’s must more linear – add pectin here, or bring the jam to 222 degrees before canning. In Russia, while everyone made his own jams and preserves, no one had pectin (never mind using it) or owned a candy thermometer. You stirred, smelled, tasted, and waited patiently, tending to the consistency of the burbling liquid. You learned from your mothers and grandmothers what couldn't be taught in a recipe but was passed on through seasons of watching and helping out in the kitchen.
We canned a lot of our own jam back in Russia. Berries and stone fruit were only available in the summertime, and if you wanted a sweet reminder of the summer’s bounty in the cold winter months, you had to set aside a few days to make some jam. Every year, my mother and grandmothers turned out what seemed to be vats of jams, pickles, and conserves. I remember my mother skimming off the jam foam, setting it on a small plate, and then letting me eat it with some bread and butter – it was heaven.
These days I don’t do much canning at home – there is seriously limited shelf space in my kitchen, though I am contemplating freeing up some designated shoe storage space for a few jars to treat ourselves through the winter months.
When I make jam, it’s usually a small batch to last a few weeks – an immediate pleasure rather than a delayed one. Apricot jam, one of my two favorites (the other one being sour cherry) is something that I’ve struggled making in the past. It was either not sweet enough because I skimped on sugar; too belabored – I tried to be creative and muddled the flavor; or overcooked – it looks liquid in the pot, but when the jam comes to room temperature it’s one solid block of mushy fruit.
It was David Tanis who taught me how to make consistently perfect apricot jam every time – in his latest book, “The Heart of the Artichoke.” Not so much as a recipe, but more like a languid, meditative poem, Tanis, who now writes an inspiring weekly column for the New York Times "City Kitchen," gently coaches to feel the jam, rather than get all scientific about it. Whenever I feel anxious or sad, I pull the book out, and open to what is, undoubtedly, the most wrinkled page in the book, and read to myself. Tanis writes, “Apricot is the ne plus ultra, the cat’s meow, of jam, and part of the thrill of making it is to take advantage of the brief apricot season.” Has a more beautiful opening sentence been written for a recipe? Don’t you want to rush back into your kitchen and rummage around for some apricots and make some jam?
There is nothing overly complicated here. You combine equal parts of apricots and sugar together, stir in some water, and heat the fruit to a simmer. Tanis tells us to stay close to the jam and stir it often, and keep an eye on the time. After 30 minutes, he says, it should start to look “right” – judging by eye is key here. When your stirring spoon stays coated with the light amber liquid, remove the jam from heat, even if it looks far too liquid to you.
The equal parts of fruit and sugar is crucial here, and until I followed Tanis’ instructions my jam always tasted a little off. Apricots, he writes, are never sweet enough for jam, and you need all that sugar to really let their flavor come through. As for the fact that there are, technically, only two ingredients to this jam – no herbs, no vanilla, no spices, no other fruit – I highly recommend that you make this jam, for the first time at least, as instructed, without trying to put your own spin on things. I know it’s tempting, especially with a recipe (if you can even call it a recipe) so simple, but sometimes it’s more about the technique than ingredients, sometimes it’s about it’s the simplest things that are most beautiful. Sometimes less is more.
Technique adapted from David Tanis' "The Heart of the Artichoke"
2 cups apricots
2 cups (400 grams) sugar
1. Halve the apricots, but do not peels them. Remove the pits and place the fruit and the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot. Stir the fruit and the sugar together first to moisten the sugar. Place the pot on low heat, adding 1/2 cup water – stir. When the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat to medium and bring the mixture to a simmer. It will start to smell really good at this point. Skim off the apricot foam that will form, and set it aside. Tanis advises us to spread it on toast, or stir it into yogurt – and it’s precisely what I do.
2. Turn the heat down to low, so the jam is simmering, and stir frequently. Watch and smell the jam closely. After 30 minutes, the jam will thicken and coat the spoon. It will look, in Tanis’ terms, “right”. But it will still look too liquid to your eye. This is fine – the jam is very hot, and will thicken upon cooling.
3. Remove from heat, and let the jam cool overnight at room temperature. Should the jam look a little thin the next day, heat it on low heat, on the stove for another 15 minutes or so. If you find it a tad too thick, add a few teaspoons of water and let it summer until you get the right consistency. If the jam turns out perfectly, as has happened to me each time I have followed Tanis’ missive, ladle it into jars and refrigerate, or follow the canning instructions that come with your canning jars/kit.
Makes between 1 and 2 pints.