Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sugar Plums Demystified: A Historic Look at a Beloved Christmas Confection

If you are thinking that those sugar plums dancing around in your head must be sugar-coated pieces of fruit, then I must inform you that you are wrong!

So, What is a Sugar Plum?
Once the cost of sugar began to decline in England in the 16th century, people could preserve all sorts of fruits with sugar.  Cookery books going back to that time period are full of recipes for preserving apricots, plums, cherries, apples, gooseberries among others. However, in those days neither plums nor any fruits preserved with sugar were ever actually referred to as "sugar plums."

A sugar plum is something completely different.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a sugar plum is "a small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugar and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit."  Now you're asking, "what's a comfit?," right?

Georg Flegel (1566-1638)
Still Life with Candy, Dutch, 17th century

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Comfits, and similarly dragees, are simply seeds, spices, and nuts that have been coated in several layers of sugar and colored with all sorts of things, such as gold leaf or silver. According to Alan Davidson in the Penguin Companion to Food, "confectioners as early as the 17th century recognized that by varying the proportions of sugar in the syrup they could change the final texture, making 'pearled' comfits or 'crisp and ragged' comfits." The Flegel painting above depicts a bowl of comfits that would have been referred to as sugar plums.

Here are some close-up images of what these little sweet gems really look like:

Sugar-Coated Almonds - Real Sugar Plums
(image from Wikimedia Commons)
OR . . .
Also Bonafide Sugar Plums - Sugar-Coated Fennel Seeds

In the painting below, the white sticks near the mouse and walnuts are probably sugar-coated cinnamon comfits made in the ragged fashion along with the round comfits that look like sugar-coated seeds:

Georg Flegel (1566-1638)
Still Life with Chestnuts and Hazelnuts in a Porcelain Bowl, etc.; 

Dutch, date unknown 
(image from Wikimedia Commons)

What Modern Day Candy Could Be Called Sugar Plums?
Modern day sprinkles (also known as jimmies or "hundreds and thousands") and licorice candies are also forms of comfits:

Licorice Comfits

Why Call Them Plums?
Clearly, there are no plums involved in the whole sugar plum conundrum; therefore, why were these sugared sweets referred to as plums?  According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, a plum could be defined as "something superior or very desirable; especially : something desirable given in return for a favor."  Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of a plum as "any desirable thing, a coveted prize; the pick of a collection of things; one of the best things in a book, piece of music, etc.; (also) a choice job or appointment" going back to 1825. Because the term "sugar plum" can be traced as far back as 1608, it is possible the word plum has been in use meaning "any desirable thing, etc" since that time.  While the history of this word may be murky, if you have ever eaten a sugar-coated nut, seed or spice you would agree that it should be considered quite a desirable and superior treat! 

So, if you ever find yourself dreaming of sugar plums, now you know what to imagine in those dreams! 

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