Everyone knows sugarplums. They’re those little….err…what are they? They’re like…plums rolled in sugar?
Or fairies, right? They’re fairies that rule the Land of Sweets and do ballet during Christmas……….
Sugarplums were an early form of boiled sweet that didn’t necessarily contain plums (although it is quite possible that at one point they were actually sugar coated plums). In fact, more often than not, there was no type of fruit inside them at all. They are actually a central “seed” or “kernel” covered with layers upon layers of a hardened sugar syrup. The seed can be anything – almonds, caraway seeds, a sugar crystal. Following that definition, a sugarplum can be an M&M, a gobstopper (everlasting or otherwise), or a jellybean.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sugarplum as “a small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugared and variously flavored and colored; a comfit.” While this definition is strange and poorly worded, it does point out on thing: “sugarplum” is just another name for a comfit. And comfit is just another name for the original “dragée.”
The term “sugarplum” first appeared in 1668 and was used commonly until the 19th century. Comfits probably garnered the name because the candy was roughly the shape and size of a plum and decorated with little wire stalks so they could be suspended. Eventually, “sugarplum” became a slang word. To say someone’s mouth was “full of sugarplums” meant that the person said sweet, but possibly deceitful, words. To stuff another person’s mouth with sugarplums meant to offer a sop or a bribe. In the 18th century, the word “plum” came to mean anything from £100 to a large amount of money to a rich person and in the 19th century, it meant anything desirable. It’s possible that “plum” could have had that meaning since 1608, so sugarplum would mean any delicious, desirable boiled sweet.
“The chances are she won’t have you that’s of course; plums like that don’t fall into a man’s mouth merely for shaking the tree” (Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope)
The sugarplum’s grandmother was the dragée, which may have come from the Greek habit of taking a seed and coating it with honey, prior to the availability of sugar:
“The word appears to come ultimately from Greek tragemata, “sweets,” plural of the word tragema, which was derived from the verb trōgein, “gnaw.” These Greek sweets consisted typically of aromatic seeds, such as aniseed or fennel, coated in honey, and this was the association the word tragemata carried with it into Latin, and thence into Old French as dragie. This was borrowed into English in the fourteenth century as dredge, by which time sugar had replaced honey as the outer coating. Comfit soon replaced dredge as the English term for such sweets, but in the nineteenth century English reborrowed the French word which by then had become dragée” (Ayto, 113).
So, since the word “dragée” never really caught on in English, comfit was used up until the 20th century when dragée was slyly slipped back into highbrow speech (and then quickly forgotten again). Its earliest meaning (in its crudest form) is anything preserved in sugar. The comfit could be the original sugar confection. By the 20th century, “comfit” had become such a broad, all encompassing term that it was easier to do away with the word and give each candy its own specific name.
The practice of covering things with a sugar coating probably began with apothecaries that sugared their pills to make them more palatable, a practice that’s still used today. Herbalist John Gerard, author of Complete Herbal, published in 1597, mentioned that sugar is beneficial to both the respiratory and the digestive systems (yea, ok buddy). He even stoops to mention some of the treats that can be made with sugar, but follows up by saying “it is not my purpose to make my book a Confectionairie, a Sugar Bakers furnace, a Gentlewoman’s preserving pan…” (Gode Cookery) Someone’s a little touchy.
Making comfit is “one of the most difficult and tedious methods in craft confectionery, requiring specialized equipment, careful heat control, and experience” (Mason, 121). The centers for the comfit sat in a heated revolving pan as layers of sugar syrup were poured over them from a basin. As the pan turned, the seeds rolled around to get a full coating of sugar syrup. After each application, the tiny candy needed to be completely dried and cooled before continuing. As it dried, a thin layer appeared and the process was repeated over and over until the comfit reached its desired size. The process was called “panning” and there was actually another name for the comfit, “panned sweet,” but that was a little too technical and didn’t catch on. It took several days to make a batch of sugared almonds, which we now call Jordan almonds.
Coordinating the process was tricky, especially when the confectioner was making comfit on his own. The best method was to suspend the basin by cords attached to the ceiling over the pan. That meant the confectioner could shake the basin with one hand, dispensing sugar syrup, and stir the seeds with other hand, all while keeping the pan in constant motion. The constant motion was key in order to keep any of the seeds from burning. Hanging the basin also kept the sugar the right distance from the heat, keeping it warm enough to dry but not hot enough to burn. The hanging basin became known as the “balancing pan.”
Another method for comfit making was to place a pan over a small furnace and stir the seeds with one hand while rotating the pan with the other to prevent burning. The pan was attached to the top of a wooden barrel or tub. This method of placing a flat pan or basin over a barrel was used to make nonpareils as well as comfits (and let’s be honest, nonpareils are just itty bitty comfits anyway).
As early as the 17th century, confectioners realized that comfits were delicate creatures. Slight variations to the temperature and sugar solution would give different texture results to the candies. The textured ones described as rough, crisp, or pearled (probably because of bobbly surface) and the smooth were called lisse. Smooth, round comfits needed a slightly higher boiling temperature and a lighter, less concentrated syrup. Smooth comfits were made with a sugar syrup boiled to the degree of lisse, literally meaning smooth.
Pouring the sugar syrup from a higher distance from the pan would give the comfits an irregular surface and required the sugar syrup to be boiled to the degree of “pearl.” Something called a pearling pot was also employed, which allowed the flow of syrup flow to be controlled by a pin.
When it came to simple comfits, the whiter the better. It meant that the candy had been properly dried and stored, but colors and flavors could be added to the last layer of sugar syrup as it was poured over the seed. Anise vermeil, red anise, was the first mentioned colored comfit and goes back as far as 14th century France. Turnsole (violet or purple) and sanders (powdered sandalwood) were used in the 16th century to make candies red, and in the 17th century beet leaf juice (green) and saffron (yellow) were used as well. To show that you were really rich, you could have your comfits covered with thin layers or gold or silver.
Instructions for making comfit weren’t usually published because of all the special equipment required to make it. Those people with access to recipes saw comfit making as a specialized craft beyond what any normal person could accomplish. There were professional confectioners in larger towns like London, so people who could afford them usually bought the sweetmeat rather than even thinking about attempting the feat themselves. While covering the seed with layers of sugar would have been a new idea in the 16th century, it wasn’t until the 1540’s that sugar was refined in London and could be acquired in greater quantities. Even then, it was still expensive and only well to do families could afford it.
The few recipes there are give extremely detailed descriptions of quantities, methods, and implements, implying that the process needed to precise. Unlike so many other sweets, there was no room for improvisation when it came to comfit making. Comfit could not easily be made on a whim and was a treat reserved for aristocrats or eaten as a between course at a banquet. It could take several weeks to make one batch depending on the size of the candy.
The most popular comfit was made with a caraway or aniseed in the middle. Caraway seeds were thought to freshen the breath, thus leading any comfits made with caraway to be called “kissing confits” (an “n” was used instead of an “m” sometimes). The caraway comfit needed up to a dozen layers of sugar to ensure the seed was successfully encased. Occasionally fruit was used, which was a perfect way to preserve summer fruits to be enjoyed during the holiday season. “Long” comfits were made using slivers of cinnamon stick or candied orange and lemon peel. Tiny comfits, called “biskets” and nonpareils were made using sugar grains(fun fact: nonpareil means “unequaled”). It was generally agreed that smaller sizes made better comfits.
The spices, while providing a sturdy base, also lent a kind of perfume to the candy. Whole spices used as kernels were aniseed, coriander, the ever-popular caraway, fennel, ginger, clove, mace, cubebs, cinnamon slivers, and cardamom. There were centers made from a dried mix of grated bread with cinnamon, ginger, saffron, sugar, and borage water. And then there were almonds, pistachios, cucumber seeds, melon seeds, and preserved lemon pulp.
You could make comfits out of nearly anything.
Comfits were eaten as sweets or in other sweet dishes. For example, a seed cake may have been made with caraway comfit rather than plain caraway seeds. Nonpareils were sprinkled on top of cakes and custards and confectioners used them to cover chocolates. They were common decorations for marchpane (large, round, flat cakes of marzipan) cakes and were an essential part of any festive occasion. In France they were called espices de chambre, digestive sweetmeats for the table. When used in cooking, they were called espices de cuisine.
Here’s a detailed description of how to make them now.
Because comfits were so portable, they were used as gifts. Banquet tables would be set with little packages of comfits at each place, kind of like little bags of Jordan almonds at weddings. They were given out by men to all the women they courted during New Year’s, which was probably more a show of wealth than anything else. There was also the habit of placing the comfit inside an edible container. In the 1800’s, that practice evolved into comfits in the shape of eggs containing either an edible or inedible filling. Sound familiar?
And remember that famous scene in Alice in Wonderland when Alice must give a prize at the end of the Caucus-Race:
“Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand into her pocket and pulled out a box of comfits (luckily the salt water had not got into it) and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round” (Carroll, 34).
Once the comfits were handed out…
“The next thing was to eat the comfits: this caused some noise and confusion, as the large birds complained that they could not taste theirs, and the small ones choked and had to be patted on the back” (Carroll, 35).
Another literary reference is a poem called The Sugar-Plum Tree, written by Eugene Field (1850-1895):
Have you ever heard of the Sugar-Plum Tree?
‘Tis a marvel of great renown!
It blooms on the shore of the Lollypop Sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town;
The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.
When you’ve got to the tree, you would have a hard time
To capture the fruit which I sing;
The tree is so tall that no person could climb
To the boughs where the sugar-plums swing!
But up in that tree sits a chocolate cat,
And a ginger bread dog prowls below-
And this is the way you contrive to get at
Those sugar-plums tempting you so:
And he barks with such a terrible zest
That the chocolate cat is at once all agog,
As her swelling proportions attest.
And the chocolate cat goes covorting around
From this leafy limb unto that,
And the sugar-plums tumble, of course, to the ground-
Hurray for that chocolate cat!
With striping of scarlet and gold,
And you carry away of the treasure that rains,
As much as your apron can hold!
So come, little child, cuddle closer to me
In your dainty white nightcap and gown,
And I’ll rock you away to the Sugar-Plum Tree
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town.
In the 1860’s, candy-making machinery was invented, so things like steam heat to regulate temperature for sugar melting and mechanized rotating pans became available. That meant that less skilled workers could turn out larger batches of comfit faster and more easily, without sacrificing (too much) quality. The price of sugar fell, so candy makers could afford to make all kinds of small, shelled candies. The sugar syrup became softer as well due to a technique called “soft panning,” which substitutes glucose syrup for sugar syrup. The best example of that technique is jellybeans. The mechanization and modernization of comfit making has done one other thing: taken away the magic of the comfit.
Today, the most common type of “sugar plum” we see is made by coating preserved fruit or cream in a layer of rich chocolate or plums coated in sugar.
So anyway, what’s the connection to Christmas? When you dig into comfit’s history, there is no clear one. The connection to Christmas has come entirely from one literary reference and a little ballet known as The Nutcracker.
First, there’s the famous line in A Visit from St. Nicholas. When “the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads,” they were probably just thinking of the sweet treats to come the next day or even (as per the slang) any pleasing thing.
Then there’s The Nutcracker, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which premiered on December 18th, 1892. One of my favorite parts has always been “The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy.” In the same way that I loved Queen Frostine in Candy Land (the board game), I love the Sugar-Plum Fairy because she was beautiful and in charge.
I kind of had a Miss Piggy complex when I was younger.
Anyway, Clara visits the Land of Sweets in Confiturembourg (bolded part, if you please), which is ruled by the Sugar-Plum Fairy. Without knowing what a sugarplum was or its significance, the Sugar-Plum Fairy seems kind of underwhelming. Who wants to be ruled by a plum coated in sugar?
Not so, my friends.
Those comfits were a thing of wonder and beauty, just like Ms. Sugar-Plum. By 1892, the sweets had become mechanized so the wonder was slowly fading, but it was not so far in the future that people had forgotten the importance of the comfit. The ballet was, after all, based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816 when they were still expensive delights.
This has always been my favorite version of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”
And that, in sort of a weird, long-winded way is why sugarplums are a Christmas thing.
Keep eating and asking, my friend.
-Ayto, John. “Sugarplum.” An A-Z of Food and Drink. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 329. Print.
-Bowler, G. Q.. “Sugarplums.” The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 217. Print.
-Carroll, Lewis. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland … – Lewis Carroll – Google Books.” Google Books. Google, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2011. <http://books.google.com/books?id=XlsVAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=alice+in+wonderland&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Wt78Tpz5NcjY0QH9n7WtAg&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=comfits&f=false>.
-Cohen, Sharon. “Visions of Sugarplums.” Welcome to Gode Cookery. Sharon Cohen, n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2011. <http://www.godecookery.com/friends/frec74.htm>.
-Crump, William D.. “Sugarplums.” The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. 271. Print.
-Kawash, Samira. “Sugar Plums: They’re Not What You Think They Are – Samira Kawash – Health – The Atlantic.” The Atlantic â€” News and analysis on politics, business, culture, technology, national, international, and life Ã¢Â€Â“ TheAtlantic.com. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 23 Dec. 2011. <http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/12/sugar-plums-theyre-not-what-you-think-they-are/68385/>.
-Mason, Laura. “Lost meanings: comfits.” Sugar-plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets. Totnes: Prospect, 2004. 119-133. Print.
-O’Loughlin, Kathy. “The colorful origins of traditional holiday sweets.” Main Line Times [Ardmore] 23 Dec. 2004: 9. Print.
-Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline–Christmas food history.” Food Timeline: food history & vintage recipes . Lynne Olver, n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2011. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/christmasfood.html#sugarplums>.
Photos, in order of appearance: