A Harte Appetite: What Are Sugar Plums Anyway?
On Christmas Eve not even mice will be stirring, stockings will be carefully hung by chimneys, and children will be snugly nestled in their beds. Moreover, dancing in their heads will be visions of sugar plums.
I must've read the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" hundreds of times - I even had to memorize it for a school play when I was in the first grade. And yet, despite all those readings, I never thought much about what sugar plums are, let alone why they were dancing. It turns out, that the question "what is a sugar plum?" is not that easy to answer. I found at least eight distinctly different definitions of the term. Some citing chocolate, some fondant, and others coriander as a chief ingredient.
The sugar plums referred to in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" may have actually been a form of fruit, now nearly extinct, that was smaller than a regular plum, gold colored, and intensely sweet. More commonly, at least since 1668 when the term was first used, sugar plums are considered a confection. They probably originated in Portugal, where they contained green plums, but are now just as likely to feature black figs. They were poached for days in syrup and rolled in sugar to preserve them through the winter.
These days, the term sugar plum generally refers to a confection made of dried fruit and rolled into balls. As such, they're easy to make especially if you have a food processor. Much easier than the poached variety, which according to 17th century recipes, you had to boil for days on end.
The best time to eat them is actually not on Christmas, but on January 2nd, the feast of St. Macarius, the patron saint of confectioners. He was a 4th century monk who was also a sugar plum merchant. What better way to honor him on his feast day than by gulping down a few of his favorite delicacies.