A version of this column originally appeared in Sweet Paul Magazine, Fall 2016 issue.
In between high school and college, I had the privilege to study abroad for a year as an exchange student in Yugoslavia. I lived in a small town in Bosnia, back before the war when Yugoslavia still existed tenuously as a united country. Since I had already graduated from high school, my academic studies were not rigorous. However, the life lessons I learned, and the paths I started down in Yugoslavia have been fundamental to where I am today.
My host family (Mama, Tata and my sister, Sladjana) lived in a house on the edge of our small town with a yard full of produce and fruit trees. We raised chickens and pigs and my Mama cooked everything we ate. She spoke only a few words of English, so it was quite a while before we could have deep conversations. Though my understanding started small, she spoke to me often, encouraging me to listen and learn and laughing with me when we couldn’t quite make sense of each other.
Our meals and tasks at home were seasonal. In the spring we got chicks that we kept warm in a box in the garage. A few months later, all the neighbor women got together to help with the slaughtering. Similarly in the fall, the neighborhood came together for the pig slaughter. And around the same time, my host mother taught me to mill the plums from our trees to make plum jam. This thick, sticky jam was stored in our pantry and we would spread it inside warm palacinka (crepe like pancakes) and Mama would use it to fill sweet buns, called buhtle, for parties.
Today I farm with my wife and friends. As I did in Yugoslavia, we live very seasonally and food preservation is a cornerstone of my life. I stay in touch with my Yugoslav family through my host sister. Tata passed away last year, and I wish that I could see Mama, hug her and laugh together. By sharing her life with me, she has given me
one of the best gifts – the love of preserving and cooking seasonally, and the importance of staying connected to the land.
Mama’s Plum Jam
Yield: Approximately 3 pints
4 ½ pounds very ripe plums
2 cups water
5 cups sugar
pinch of salt
juice of 1 lemon
- Remove pits from the plums and cut into chunks. Or if you have a food mill like Mama, use it!
- Combine the plums and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour.
- Add the sugar and salt to the pan and stir until the sugar dissolves. Increase heat to medium-high and boil, stirring occasionally, for 25-45 minutes or until the jam is thick and dark. Stir in lemon juice.
- Cool and use to fill sweet buns or cookies or spread on toast. Or if canning, ladle into prepared 8 ounce jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
Sweet Buns with Plum Jam (Buhtle)
1 pkt active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
3 cups (500 g) flour plus more for rolling
1/3 cup (80 g) sugar
½ teaspoon salt
zest of 1 lemon
2 egg yolks
1/3 cup lukewarm water
1 cup plum jam
Butter or oil for coating buns and baking tray
Powdered sugar for sprinkling
- In a small bowl, mix the yeast with the warm milk and set aside to allow yeast to activate.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Add the yeast mixture along with the eggs and water.
- Using the paddle attachment, mix the dough rapidly for a few minutes until a ball forms. The dough will be sticky.
- Cover bowl with a towel and leave in a warm place about 40 minutes to rise.
- Dust your work surface generously with flour and roll out dough to ½ inch thick. Cut into 16 rectangles and put 1 Tablespoon of plum jam on each.
- Pinch each rectangle around the filling and form into a ball making sure that it is tightly closed.
- Dip or brush each ball on all sides with melted butter or oil.
- Place them in a greased square pan and allow to rise for another 15 minutes. During this time, heat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 C).
- Bake buns in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes.
- Serve warm and sugared.