Clement Moore’s poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” first published in 1823, describes “visions of sugar plums” dancing in the children’s heads as they sleep. Confirming that it’s not a made-up food like roast beast, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker features “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” which debuted in 1892, or nearly 70 years after the most well-known reference. It’s a real food, a much-discussed sweet come December, but it’s one few see today. What are sugar plums, and why is that challenging Santa’s milk and cookies?
Well, they’re not sugar-coated plums.
Instead, a sugar plum is a piece of hard candy made of hardened sugar coating and a seed, nut, or spice, not a plum or another fruit. In fact, part of the name, “plum,” refers to its small size and oval shape, not its taste.
Sugar plums were tricky to make when they were popular. The hard sugar coatings had to be gradually built up over time in a process, called “panning,” that had to be repeated until up to 30 layers of sugar had been added, taking several days to create. Massively labor-intensive, sugar coated treats like sugar plums were a luxury. Sugar plums were originally made for aristocrats, not sleepy children waiting for Santa Claus, only becoming available to the masses in the 1860s thanks to manufacturers. Once available at a lower price, each manufacturer created their own name for the candy, leading the term “sugar plum” to phase out of popularity.
For those excited by the idea of candied plums, never fear! Around the holidays, a Google search for “sugar plum candy” will provide plenty of options, whether it’s a sugared plum or a modern sugar plum with a center of dried fruits and honey. There are plenty of options to try. And today, modern sugar plums are often served with various cookies, so have a glass of milk on hand.
Are you dreaming of sugar plums?