Sunday, December 9, 2012

Apple #614: Sugarplums

For my continuing series on Christmas-related topics, I thought it might be nice to investigate some of the unusual items that pop up in Christmas carols and stories.  The first oddity I thought of was sugarplums.  Those children have sugarplums dancing in their heads, but what the heck are sugarplums, anyway?

"The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads."  (From "'Twas the Night Before Christmas")
(Image from the Christmas Library)

I've always pictured sugar-plums as bon bons that are made of plums, or they're purple like plums, and dusted with confectioner's sugar.  I think maybe that's how somebody drew them in a picture book once.  But it turns out I was completely wrong.  That is not at all what sugar plums are.
  • First of all, sugarplums don't even have plums as an ingredient.
  • Sugarplums, according to my OED, are a round or oval candy, made of boiled sugar, and variously flavored and colored.
  • Well, that could describe all sorts of candies.  My OED says they're also a type of comfit.  
  • But what's a comfit?
  • If you've ever had those Good 'n' Plenty-like candies with an anise seed in the middle, you've had a comfit.

These are comfits from France. Very similar to Good 'n' Plentys.
(Photo from The Accidental Hedonist

  • They're a confection with maybe a nice middle though not necessarily so, and then coated with a hard sugar shell.  
  • I wonder, if you consider a peanut a seed, then maybe peanut M&Ms are a type of comfit.
  • Comfits (by the way, it's pronounced the way it looks: kohm-fit.  Hard t.) are very difficult and time-consuming to make.  
  • To say nothing of the work involved in making the interior of the candy, you get a glob of the innards to stay on a wire suspended over a bowl, then you ladle molten sugar over the innards, let it cool, ladle another layer of liquid sugar, let that cool, etc., up to twelve coats.  
  • Now, imagine doing all that in a kitchen of the 1700s, with a wood-burning oven and a relatively limited choice of tools compared to all the gadgets we have today.  
  • Something that's that difficult to make would certainly be quite a gift worth dreaming about.
  • Sugarplums were made this way, but they were formed in the shape of plums.  The wire that the candy was suspended from was left in to represent the stalk of the plum.  The seed in the middle could be anise, or caraway, or even cardamom.

Anise is a licorice-flavored seed. In star anise, the seeds grow in these star-shaped pods.
(Photo from Lala's Group)

Caraway seeds taste a little like anise, but this relative in the parsley family has a slightly warmer flavor.  Caraway seeds are often used to flavor rye bread or pickles.  They're actually a fruit, not a seed.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

Cardamom are fragrant seeds that grow inside pods like these. It is warm like cinnamon but a little spicier. Cardamom tea is fabulous.
(Photo from Lala's Group)

There are a ton of photos only of various desserts that people say are sugar plums. Many are rolled in powdered sugar, but none have a hard candy shell.  I wonder if that's because the hard shell is too hard and time-consuming for people to make at home.

It seems that everyone is going with an (actually incorrect) definition, which says that sugarplums are sugar-coated balls of fruit and nuts.  So if you want to make imposter sugarplums, you can find recipes for those all over the place.  They do seem to be much easier to make than the traditional sugarplum candies.

Actually, these might be the closest things out there to sugar plums.  This is from the website's description:
"This candy, consisting of a grain of aniseed coated in sugar, is perhaps the oldest in France, mentioned in a document as early as 872. In the 17th century, when the candy was manufactured by Ursuline sisters, six months were needed to add and dry the successive coats of sugar. Today, the factory is still situated at the heart of the ancient abbey, but the process is completed in only 15 days."
(Image and candy, available for $4.50 per tin, from the Frenchy Bee)

Wait.  I think I found something that meets the description. Anise seed candies coated with sugar -- but they're Dutch. They're called muisjes, or "mice" because the sugar coating forms a little peak at one end, like a tail.  Or maybe like the stalk of a plum!

Dutch muisjes -- maybe the closest things out there to true sugarplums?
(Photo from Clouddragon)

  • I'm thinking that maybe "plums of sugar" is the best way to think of sugarplums.
  • Then, of course, there's the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker.  
  • This personage fits with another part of the definition of "sugar-plum," which is "something very pleasing or agreeable, especially when given as a sop or a bribe." 
  • Well, the bribery part is not so nice.  But something like parents giving their children a sugar-plum or two as a way to get them to go off to bed fits in very nicely.

I think the way this woman dances the part completely epitomizes the way people must have thought of sugar plums: light, delightful, sweet but not overly so, but ultimately so good and incredible, it's almost not to be believed.

I don't know the name of this dancer, but she's part of the Bolshoi Ballet. Her skill plus the enthusiasm of the audience make me wish I could go to Moscow to see a ballet.  That wish is a sugar plum dancing in my head.

P.S. Sugar plums are variously spelled, as sugar-plums, sugar plums, and sugarplums. The OED goes the hyphenated route, but most other sources use either of the other two versions about equally as often. So I'm thinking it's a three-way tie, and that any spelling is acceptable.

My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
The Food Timeline, Sugarplums and comfits
Sugar Plums: They're Not What You Think They Are, The Atlantic, December 22, 2010
Sugar Plums, Saveur, Muisjes

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