You’ve probably heard of sugar plums either from Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) or “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” (third movement, pas de deux). But what are sugar plums anyway? Well, they’re not sugar coated plums- according to candy historians and the Oxford English Dictionary, a sugar plum is a type of candy sometimes called a dragée, or more commonly, 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. They were tricky to make. The sugar coatings had to be gradually built up over time, first adding sugar syrup with a special funnel (called a “pearling funnel” or “cot”), then shimmying the candies in a hot pan. This process-called “panning”— had to be repeated for hours or days on end, until up to 30 layers of sugar had been added to the mix. Comfits, since they were massively labor-intensive, were pricey- so sugar plums were originally luxury treats for the wealthy.
Historically, the word “plum” in the name of this confection did not mean the fruit of the same name, but instead referred to small size and spherical or oval shape of these treats. In the 17th century, sugar plums would have been small comfits with fillings made out of a spices, nuts, caraway, fennel, coriander, and cardamom seeds, almonds, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, and aniseed. The resulting candy would have been similar to modern Jordan almonds- oval or spherical sweets, typically with an almond or a coriander seed in the middle, with a hard-sugar shell colored red with mulberry juice or cochineal, blue with indigo, green with spinach, or yellow with saffron. Since the process of panning was so labor-intensive, most people would have purchased these sweets from a shop, which would have sold different colors and flavors of sugar plums in paper cones
This modern recipe is intended for home cooks, and is more an homage to those treats from long ago rather than a historic or traditional recipe since it includes dried fruit. However, it still retains the sugar and spice of the original candies, and it’s also very flexible, so you can substitute other dried fruits and play around with the nuts and spices listed if you like. If you like brandy, consider adding a spoonful to the mixture for a more grown-up treat- the brandy enhances the flavors of the fruit and spices, and you only need a small amount.
• 1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
• 1/4 cup dried figs, stems removed and chopped
• 1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
• 1/4 cup dried dates, chopped
• 1/4 cup dried prunes, chopped
• 1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
• Pinch of cloves
• Pinch of allspice
• Pinch of cardamom
• 2 teaspoons brandy (optional)
• 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
• 3 tablespoons honey
• Coarse sugar for decorating
1. Place the almonds, dried fruit, and crystallized ginger in the work bowl of a food processor and chop to a fine consistency on the pulse function.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to pulse until well mixed but still crumbly; do not puree or make a paste of the ingredients.
3. Divide the sugar plum mix into 20 even portions (using about 1 rounded tablespoon per sugar plum will give you about the right measurements). Alternatively, you can transfer the mixture to a sheet of wax paper, gently smooth the mixture into a rectangle using a spatula, and cut it into 20 even pieces.
4. Spread a thin layer of coarse decorating sugar on a plate. Lightly coat your hands with powdered sugar and roll each piece into a ball. Roll the balls in the decorating sugar to coat and place in small paper baking cups or in a single layer on a serving plate.
last updated August 17, 2023