The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.
-- from "A Visit From St. Nicholas"
by Clement C. Moore
So what is a sugarplum? As a child, on Christmas Eve while nestled in my own bed, I used to dream up visions of plums dusted with sugar, or giant hard candies shaped like plums. At the very least it had to be something wonderful and delicious, a candy fit for Santa Claus.
My ideas were not too far off, but to understand sugarplums, it first is necessary to do a bit of linguistic puzzle solving. In Britain, plums are not always, well, plums. Think of plum pudding. Often it does not contain plums, or even prunes. Raisins, figs and dates usually are the dried fruit ingredients. Part of the solution to the puzzle is that the word plum in England may be used to describe any pitted dried fruit.
Unfortunately the definition does not end there. England's cockney dialects rhyme words and create unlikely names for things. In Devonshire, and in certain parts of London, plum can mean plump or sweet. The word sugarplum, therefore, refers to a candy that either contains pitted dried fruit(s) and/or is plump and sweet.
With such a broad description, my vision of sugarplums became even more muddled. I turned next to traditional sugarplum recipes. The first one I could find dates back to 12th-century Venice. At that time a sweetmeat was made with almonds and sugar and was rolled into balls, similar to what we now know as marzipan. Wealthy families in Venice enjoyed the dessert so much that they were willing to fight over it. Mini wars ensued for the love of sugarplums.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, glazed figs were popular throughout Middle Eastern countries. Whole figs would be cooked slowly in a spiced sugar syrup until they developed a hard candy coating. This method produced not only a delicious flavor but also helped to preserve the fruit.
News of the recipe quickly spread. A 1668 British cookbook described a sugarplum as being "small candy in the shape of a ball or disk; a sweetmeat." By the 19th century, sugarplums had evolved into a blend of chopped nuts, ginger, dried pitted fruit, brandy, all the ingredients being sold by street vendors in London during the holidays.
My recipe for Victorian Sugarplums was inspired by British candies from the mid- to late 1800s. Surprisingly, they have all of the flavor, look and appeal of modern confections. In my opinion, sugarplums are the '90s answer to fruitcake.
Sugarplums are incredibly quick and easy to prepare. They are not as rich or as cloyingly sweet as some fruitcakes. They are small enough to appeal to dieters, but are flavorful enough to satisfy gourmands. Like fruitcake, these sugarplums can be made well ahead of time. In fact, they improve with age. They are moist and do not easily dry out, even when aged for long periods in the refrigerator.
The recipe for Sugarplum Cookies falls under the broader definition, as do most commercial sugarplums. Everything from purple gumdrops to plum fondant chocolate bon bons to Bavarian Zwetschgendatschi plum cake is labeled as being a sugarplum this year.
Since there are few real limits, try creating your own sugarplums. For an ultra-quick treat, stuff dates, dried apricots or plump, moist dried figs with nuts, lemon curd, toasted marshmallows, chocolate chunks, candied peel or even honey-sweetened peanut butter. California dried black mission or turkey figs work better for stuffing than imported varieties, which tend to be too dry.
Whether you use your own recipes or those below, sugarplums are certain to become seasonal favorites in your household. VICTORIAN SUGARPLUMS (Makes about 4 dozen)
Grand Marnier will impart an orange perfume to these wonderful candies. The Victorians loved oranges and even presented them as gifts in holiday stockings. Brandy, however, is the more authentic ingredient.
1 1/2 cups walnut halves 1/2 cup sliced almonds 1 cup prunes, pitted 2/3 cup dates, pitted 2/3 cup currants or raisins 3 half-dollar-size pieces crystallized ginger root 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, brandy or orange juice 1/4 cup candied cherries plus 12 candied cherries, quartered, for garnish 1 cup sugar
Place the walnuts, almonds, prunes, dates, currants, ginger, Grand Marnier with 1/4 cup of the cherries in a food processor or blender. Mix until a thick paste forms.
By hand, or with 2 teaspoons, shape the mixture into small balls. Roll each ball in the sugar. Press a candied cherry slice on top.
Per sugarplum: 72 calories, 1 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 1 mg sodium TURKISH SUGARPLUMS (Makes about 3 dozen)
These sugarplums have a slightly more exotic, spicy taste, evocative of Turkish and Middle Eastern candies. Pair them with Victorian Sugarplums in a homemade candy box for a unique hostess gift. Children can help make them since they involve no baking. 1 cup dried figs, stemmed 1 cup dried apricots, pitted 2/3 cup (shelled) pistachio nuts 1/2 cup sliced almonds 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice Zest of 1 lemon 2 tablespoons honey 1 cup confectioners' sugar
Combine all ingredients, except the confectioners' sugar, in a food processor or blender. Mix to form a coarse paste.
Shape mixture into small balls. Roll each in confectioners' sugar.
Per sugarplum: 62 calories, 1 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 1 mg sodium SUGARPLUM COOKIES (Makes 1 1/2 dozen)
More like a small tart than a cookie, these little morsels go well with eggnog or warm milk lightly sweetened with honey and dusted with nutmeg.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely chopped hazelnuts
2/3 cup shredded coconut
1 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 cup plum preserves
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cream butter, sugar and vanilla together in a mixing bowl. Stir in flour. Add hazelnuts, coconut and orange zest. Stir until just combined.
Form dough into tablespoon-size balls. With your thumb, or the back of a spoon, make an indentation in the center of each ball. Fill with 1/2 teaspoon plum preserves. Place on a baking sheet.
Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 14 minutes, or until lightly browned. Allow to cool for a few minutes before removing from the baking sheet.
Per cookie: 150 calories, 1 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 11 mg sodium Jennifer Viegas is a food columnist for Knight-Ridder newspapers. She also writes for television and magazines. CAPTION: Visions of Sugarplums; Tchaikovsky and Clement Moore paid homage to them. But what are sugarplums anyway?