A chance gift of jam deepens a friendship and produces a very good recipe
By Jordan Champagne, Photography by Michelle Magdalena
We were visiting the homestead of Stephen Cram, a friend of my husband in Northern Vermont, where we toured his gardens and learned about the flower bouquets he was taking to market. My son was happy to leave us talking while he went down to check out the river. But then he returned with pleas to go kayaking, and soon we were all hiking down to the river to appease his desires and have an adventure. Wearing the wrong sandals and white pants, I was not enjoying this part of the visit. I have to admit that I am not always the “Happy Girl” that everyone imagines and actually my mood was quite crabby. To top it off, I was being bitten by what seemed like a million mosquitos. I urged my husband to keep things moving so that we could get to Burlington in time for dinner with his parents.
Finally, my wish came true, and we all began our ascent to the car. On our way out, Stephen grabbed a jar of preserves off of the back of his pickup truck and gave it to us as a parting gift. I received it with delight and asked what it was. He responded, “It’s a jar of pepper jam that I made last year.” All at once my entire mood shifted. I asked if it would be all right if I opened the jar right there and sampled it. I explained that I am the type of person who opens my post office box, sits right there on the floor and rips open and reads any letters. I have never been one to wait.
I truly expected to open the jar and have it taste like most every other pepper jam I have ever had—too sweet and with too much vinegar and not enough pepper flavor. I am particular about what I do and do not like, and I really do not like the pepper jam that most people do. It usually contains added pectin to get it to gel, giving it a Jell-O consistency. But just after opening the jar, I could tell that this preserve was different. The fragrance of peppers wafted up and nearly knocked me over. The smell was so delicious that I dipped my finger in and sampled the jam. My enthusiasm was hard to contain.
When I really like something, I kind of start spazzing out like a high school girl at a pop music concert! Instantly I blurted out, “Can I have the recipe? This is the most amazing pepper jam I have ever tasted!” Stephen said he would be happy to give us the recipe because “good food is meant to be shared and enjoyed.” I hugged him, and he started to tell me the ingredients and the process that he used. I looked over at my family and saw the “oh, no, there goes mom” expression on their faces. They knew that we were no longer on the fast track out of there. The momentum had taken a dramatic turn.
I took a piece of scrap paper from my bag and began asking specific questions about the recipe. Stephen said that maybe it would be better if he just mailed it to me, but that sounded like a terrible idea and I told him so. Instead, we all followed Stephen into his tiny cabin, and he went to look for the recipe. We searched the kitchen bookshelves where his recipe book usually resides, but no luck. We began having side conversations and settled in a little bit. All the while, Stephen continued looking for the book that contained the magic recipe for the world’s best pepper jam. Having been a judge for the Good Food Awards, I have tasted hundreds of jam submissions from producers all over the country. None was as good as this one, and I really wanted to know how to make it.
Finally, he found it. I wrote down the recipe word for word along with Stephen’s version. Just then his teenaged son walked in. I told him that he should be really proud of his dad’s pepper jam. I told them both that I would fly them out to California for the awards ceremony if we won a Good Food Award for this recipe! I was so happy to have the recipe and to have made such a strong connection with my husband’s friend. We left an hour later, all feeling joyous and good about saying goodbye.
It is amazing how food can spark a bond in people who, otherwise, might never have connected. Who knows, maybe your soul mate is right next to you and you wouldn’t know it unless you made pickles together!
STEPHEN CRAM’S RED PEPPER JAM
Courtesy Jordan Champagne, Happy Girl Kitchen Co., Pacific Grove
Yields about 6 pints
For this sweet relish you can use whichever varieties of pepper that you like. I prefer a sweet pepper that has a little kick to it, like a corno di toro, an Italian heirloom variety. It can also be fun to mix some red and green for color variety. Stephen used just red peppers, and it was gorgeous, too! You can add a little jalapeño if you would like some spice in your life. It is unequaled as a spread for sandwiches and with cream cheese.
10 cups peppers, chopped into large pieces and seeds removed 8 cups sugar
7 cups vinegar (apple cider is my favorite)
6 tablespoons salt
Blend peppers in a food processor until they are still chunky. Mix with the salt and let stand overnight. The next day, drain well and combine with the vinegar and sugar. Stir over heat until the mix- ture boils. Reduce heat and simmer until thick and continue stir- ring frequently. Do a gel test by cooling it to room temperature to see how thick it is. It may take up to 30 minutes to achieve the correct thickness. When jam has reached the desired thickness, seal in a hot water bath canner.
Jordan Champagne is the co-owner and founder of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. She has a passion for preserving the local, organic harvest and loves sharing her secrets at the workshops she teaches across the region.