Butter is probably the most important word in my gastronomic vocabulary -- and almost anything that is called a butter makes me hungry. That doesn't mean just rich, sweet, unsalted butter made from fine farm-fresh cream, or a costly half-pound of imported French or English butter.

I also love the nut butters -- macadamia and cashew being two current favorites, with hazelnut and pistachio next in line. Even peanut butter, smooth or chunky, though it now seems to be used more for baking than for plain old eating. Then there are herb butters, of course.

However, this seems to have become for me the Year of Fruit Butter. It started with an experimental prune butter -- pitted prunes simmered in apple juice with a little sugar until they were tender, about 30 minutes, and then pure'ed in a food processor until smooth and thick. Scraped into a jar and refrigerated, it is so easy to make that it can be prepared in small batches that last for a few weeks, eliminating the trouble of canning and processing.

The prune butter piqued my interest and I tried two more butters -- pure apple and dark pear. Basically, they are prepared like applesauce, but then the mixture is taken off the stove top and is placed in the oven to thicken. It takes hours, but little attention.

Start fruit butters on a day you plan to be around the house for other reasons. If you want to process the butters for long storage, you can do them before bedtime, let them cool overnight in the kitchen, and then label and hide them in the morning. Once the jars are opened, fruit butters do not remain uneaten for long. ALMOST-INSTANT PRUNE BUTTER (Makes about 2 1/2 cups)

1 pound pitted prunes

1/2 cup apple juice or water

1/4 cup sugar

Juice of 1 to 2 lemons

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and mix together. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes until the prunes are very tender.

When very tender, pure'e in a food processor. The prune butter should be about as thick as a commercial mayonnaise. If thinner than that, you might want to return it to a saucepan and simmer it for another 5 to 10 minutes, to thicken it slightly. You might also want to taste the prune butter and decide if you would like it a little sweeter (in which case you could stir in a little more sugar) or a little tarter (in which case you could add some additional lemon or even lime juice). If you do adjust the flavor, bring the prune butter back to a boil and then transfer to a clear jar, cover tightly and refrigerate until needed. Use within about 4 to 6 weeks. DARK PEAR BUTTER (Makes about 6 half-pints)

6 cups sugar

2 cups apple juice or apple cider, or scotch, bourbon or dark rum

Juice of 4 lemons

5 pounds tender but not overripe pears

Place the sugar and juice or liquor in a large non-reactive kettle and mix well. Add the lemon juice and stir again. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat so the mixture simmers while you prepare the pears.

Cut the pears in half. With a lemon baller, remove and discard the cores. Discard any stems and remove and discard the fibers connecting the core to the stem and blossom ends. Peel the pear halves, cut into large dices and toss into the simmering syrup. When all the pears are in the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the mixture reduces to a gentle boil. Cook until the texture of applesauce, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Pure'e the pear mixture in a food processor fitted with its metal blade, a few cups at a time, until very smooth. Pour into a large, shallow non-aluminum pan or pot, and place in a 250-degree oven uncovered. Cook for about 3 to 4 hours, stirring once or twice an hour, until a dark brown pear butter forms that is thick enough for a spoon to just about stand upright in it.

Pour into hot sterilized jars and cap according to the manufacturer's directions (I prefer half pints). Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Cool and check seals. PURE APPLE BUTTER (Makes about 6 half-pint jars)

For me, the best apple butter is the purest -- no heavy spices, no ginger tingle, just the flavor of pure apples made the slightest bit more meaningful with a little lemon juice.

6 to 7 cups sugar (depending on the tartness of the apples)

2 cups apple juice or apple cider

Juice of 2 lemons

5 pounds of firm, tart apples

Place the sugar and juice or cider in a large non-reactive kettle and mix well. Add the lemon juice and stir again. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat so the mixture simmers while you prepare the apples.

Cut the apples in half. With a lemon baller, remove and discard the cores. Discard any stems and remove and discard the fibers connecting the core to the stem and blossom ends. Peel the halves, cut into large dices and toss into the simmering syrup. When all the apples are in the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the mixture reduces to a gentle boil. Cook until the texture of applesauce, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Pure'e the apple mixture in a food processor fitted with its metal blade, a few cups at a time, until very smooth. Pour into a large, shallow non-aluminum pan or pot, and place in a 250-degree oven uncovered. Cook for 3 to 4 hours, stirring once or twice an hour, until a dark brown apple butter forms that is thick enough for a spoon to just about stand upright in it.

Pour into hot sterilized jars and cap according to the manufacturer's directions (I prefer half pints). Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Cool and check seals.