Sugarplums

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Sugarplums

In Clement C. Moore's famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," the children lie "nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced through their heads." Although today's children crave candy canes and chocolates at Christmas time, Moore's poem reminds us that over one hundred years ago children longed for sugarplums. In fact, sugarplums symbolized a child's Christmas joys to such an extent that Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky's late nineteenth-century Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, features a character called the "Sugarplum Fairy," who rules over the Kingdom of Sweets.

What exactly are sugarplums, anyway? In past centuries people might call any kind of candied fruit a sugarplum. In addition, confectioners used the term to refer to candied spices. Thus, dried and sugared plums, apricots, cherries, ginger, aniseeds, and caraway seeds might all go by the name "sugarplum." Traditional recipes suggest various preparations for this confection. Some sugarplum recipes called for coating dried fruit in sugar or sugary icing. Others recommend cooking it in sugar syrup. Nineteenth-century American cooks occasionally stewed greengage plums in a sugar and cornstarch syrup, calling the resulting sweets "sugarplums."

Today's cooks might find it confusing to lump so many different confections together under the name "sugarplum." In earlier times, however, the word "plum" served as a generic term for any kind of dried fruit (see also Plum Pudding). Given this definition, the term "sugarplum" might be said to offer an accurate description of these candies. Sugarplums, or "comfits" as confectioners sometimes called them, not only delighted children as special Christmas treats, but also enriched a variety of cakes and puddings during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.

Further Reading

Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
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