What the Hell’s a Sugar Plum, Anyway?
(This ghost of Christmas past originally posted Dec. 15, 2008)
Merriam-Webster says the term dates to 1626 to describe "a small candy in the shape of a ball or disk." "Sweetmeat" is offered as a synonym, an even more archaic word for "candy" from the 14th century. All rather vague.
Saveur has the most insight:
The famous sugar plums spoken about in Clement Clark Moore's beloved poem, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" were actually sugar-coated coriander. Later the recipe changed and included other spices and dried fruit.
Both old and new recipes use confectioners sugar, probably because it looks like snow. (Well, that, and because powdered sugar tastes good.) The updated recipe isn't so much a candy as what hikers and other Co-op shoppers know as an "energy ball"—a lump of dried fruit, nuts and sweetener.
Saveur's recipe makes about 75 sugar plums.
2 cups whole almonds
1⁄4 cup honey
2 tsp. grated orange zest
1 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice
1⁄2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup finely chopped dried apricots
1 cup finely chopped pitted dates
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1) Preheat oven to 400°. Arrange almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast in oven for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, then finely chop.
2) Meanwhile, combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl. Add almonds, apricots, and dates and mix well.
3) Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size pieces of the mixture and roll into balls. (Rinse your hands often, as mixture is very sticky.) Roll balls in sugar, then refrigerate in single layers between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers for up to 1 month. Their flavor improves after ripening for several days.