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Savoring Sweet History of Sugarplums

Tchaikosky's Sugarplum Fairy made them popular but few have ever eaten let alone know what a sugarplum is.

Savoring Sweet History of Sugarplums

Sugarplums have a mottled past. Sugarplum, also written as sugar plum, conjures up a variety of images that may or may not dance in one’s head as Clement Moore wrote in Twas Night Before Christmas. 

For many, a sugarplum brings to mind a ballerina or a fairy, the Sugarplum Fairy to be precise, from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. For others, sugarplums are candy made from chopped dried fruits and nuts, which, by the way, does not include plums. It’s a candy known as dragee or comfit that’s generally rolled in sugar or panned, a technique that creates a hard shell like an M&M.

Without any plums in the recipe one might ask – why call it a sugarplum? 

Historians believe in the 1600s sugarplums were named to reflect the shape and size of vintage small plums. By the 18th Century the word plum took on a new meaning. Plum became a slang term for rich. If something or someone was rich they or it were "plum."  During the 19th Century, the era of Tchaikovsky, sugarplum had two meanings: a fruit and nut candy or a person who was sweet, kind and lovely, which explains how the good Sugarplum Fairy reigned supreme over the Nutcracker ballet's second act.

According to today's Oxford English Dictionary “sugar plum” is an obsolete word. However, this hasn’t prevented confectioners from continuing the tradition of producing this vintage sweet for the holiday season. 

Based on a historic 19th Century recipe, sugarplums are an easy treat to make. The other recipeis a baked verison developed by King Arthur Flour. Give one of the recipes a try, then drop a few sugarplums in your pocket and catch a performance of the Nutcracker.

Sugarplums

  • 2 cups whole almonds
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tsp. Grated orange zest
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1 cup chopped pitted dates
  • 1 cup powdered sugar

 Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast in oven for 10 minutes. Remove, cool slightly and finely chop in a food processor. Ina large mixing bowl, combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Stir in almonds, apricots and dates and mix well. Pinch off rounded teaspoonfuls of the mixture and roll into balls. Roll balls in powdered sugar. Refrigerate in single layers with wax paper separating layers and chill.  Sugarplums flavor improves after they are allowed to age several days. Makes about 3 dozen.

Baked Sugarplums

(Recipe courtesy King Arthur Flour)

  • 10-ounces mixed dried fruit, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup rum
  • Combine and allow fruit to marinate in the rum over night.
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • dash of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup dark corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts
  • sugar for finishing superplums

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter, sugar, salt, spices and baking powder, and then beat in the egg. Add the flour, corn syrup and the chopped fruit. And walnuts.  Drop batter on parchment lined baking sheets about an inch apart. Bake for 12 minutes. Cookie will look soft and will be barely brown. Remove from oven and while cookies are still hot, shape into balls. Roll cookie balls in sugar and allow to cool on a rack.  Makes about 4 dozen

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