Long before William Christensen's retelling of "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" brought lovely visions of sugarplums to life for audiences of all ages, humble homemakers painstakingly created the sweetest of treats for the holidays by sugarcoating not plums but seeds.
Yes, seeds. And sometimes nuts. Likewise, that tender, tantalizing morsel of sugared fruit dancing in the dreams of sweetly sleeping children in "The Night Before Christmas" was actually, according to candy historians, probably a candied caraway seed or almond. So, what is a sugarplum anyway?
Rachel Rupp asked that very question for National Geographic's The Plate column in 2014. "According to candy historians and the Oxford English Dictionary," writes Rupp, "a sugarplum is a comfit -- that is, a seed, nut, or scrap of spice coated with a layer of hard sugar, like the crunchy outer case of an M&M. In the 17th century, popular innards for comfits included caraway, fennel, coriander, and cardamom seeds, almonds, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, and aniseed." Cooks would build up sugar coatings gradually "for hours or days on end, until up to 30 layers of sugar had been added to the mix." Labor-intensive and costly, comfits were a luxury.
So, although sources abound describing how to preserve plums and other fruits in syrup, the term "sugarplum" was used for a sweet candy of any sort that was mostly sugar and formed into a plum shape. According to Tanya Gulevich's "Encyclopedia of Christmas & New Year's Celebrations," "sugarplums, or 'comfits' as confectioners sometimes called them, not only delighted children as special Christmas treats, but also enriched a variety of cakes and puddings during the 17th through 19th centuries."
The Ideals Publishing Corp. brought the tradition into the 20th century in the 1991 book "An Old-Fashioned Christmas" with a recipe for sugared dried fruits. Follow these steps "to make sugarplums worth dreaming about."
--1 pound figs
--1 pound dates
--1 pound raisins
--1 pound currants
--1 pound blanched almonds
--1/2 pound walnuts
--1/2 pound pecans
--1 pound unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts
--1/2 pound shredded coconut
--1/2 pound crystallized ginger
--2 tablespoons sherry
--1 ounce orange or peach brandy
--1 cup granulated sugar
Chop figs, dates, raisins and currants; set aside.
Chop almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios; set aside.
Combine shredded coconut, crystallized ginger, the grated rind and juice of one orange and one lemon, sherry and brandy until thoroughly mixed.
Combine the fruit and nuts; add the juice, sherry and brandy mixture.
Mix thoroughly. Form into small balls and roll in granulated sugar. Store in covered tin lined with wax paper for one week to let flavors blend.
Note: To make this more budget-friendly, halve the recipe, use fewer types of nuts, and substitute additional juice (such as orange, apple, peach) for the liquor. Or try the simpler version below from Suzanne Corbett at Patch.com.
--2 cups whole almonds (or ground pecans, toasted lightly)
--1/4 cup honey
--2 teaspoons grated orange zest
--1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
--1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
--1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
--1 cup chopped dried apricots
--1 cup chopped pitted dates
--1 cup powdered sugar
Heat oven to 400 F.
Arrange almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer, and toast in oven for 10 minutes. Remove. Cool slightly, and then finely chop using a food processor.
In a large mixing bowl, combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. Stir in almonds, apricots and dates. Mix well.
Roll mixture into balls the size of a walnut.
Roll balls in powdered sugar.
Refrigerate in single layers, with wax paper separating layers. Sugarplums' flavor improves after they are allowed to age several days.