Having dispatched with that old Christmas battle axe, the fruitcake, I decided that my next bit of holiday cooking should be an equally storied dish – the sugar plum. However, I had absolutely no idea what a sugar plum was. Like the children nestled snug in their beds, I, too, had certain visions of what I thought a sugar plum might be, possibly a plum version of a candied apple. This turns out to have been completely wrong.
For the record, I also ran into this problem with Turkish Delight when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child.
Turns out that sugar plums are an assortment of finely chopped dried fruits, nuts, and sundry, mixed together and rolled in powdered sugar. I was trying to figure out what made these particular sugar plums Byzantine in nature, and in my brief reading found that dates, figs, walnuts and pistachios were part of the average person’s diet during the Byzantine Empire. So, there you go.
This recipe comes from the Junior League of Chicago‘s Soupcon (1974).
Byzantine Sugar Plums
3 pounds combined pitted dates, peeled figs, seeded raisins, currants, apricots, prunes
1/2 pound blanched walnuts or almonds
1/2 pound unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts
1/2 pound crystallized ginger
Grated rind of 2 oranges
3 T. lemon juice or brandy, or as needed
Confedtioners’ or granulated sugar
Put fruits, nuts, ginger and rind through the coarsest blade of the meat grinder. Add just enough lemon juice or brandy to enable mixture to stick together. Shape into balls, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll in sugar before wrapping. Vary assortment of fruits and nuts to suit your own taste, using any one or all of those suggested.
— Mrs. Thomas N. Boyden (Susan Dalton)
The mixture I wound up going with was dried apricots, figs, and pitted dates with walnuts, pistachios, and orange peel, crystallized ginger (though far less of this than the recipe called for), and brandy. And instead of a meat grinder, I put everything through my shiny new Cuisinart (a Christmas present from my parents who’d apparently grown weary of hearing me complain about my shoddy kitchen appliances), and the consistency came out right.
These sugar plums are rich, sticky, dense, and yummy. However, if you can eat more than one of them in a sitting, I’d be very much surprised. I took a dozen and a half of them into work, and they disappeared pretty quickly. One person made the comment that they were “nice and Christmasy,” while another who despises dried fruit deemed them “better than I expected.” Also, I’d underestimated how much southern Californians like dates and figs.
Good as they are, however, I’m not sure that visions of them would necessarily dance in your head. Then again, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was first published in the 1820s, when an orange passed for a good Christmas present, and the average life expectancy was something like 35 (16, if you were a London pauper). So, a ball of dried fruit, nuts, and brandy was probably a really big deal.
Brady says I’m really selling the sugar plums short, though, and wants it noted that “the sugar plums are like the platonic ideal of the Fig Newton. And who doesn’t love those?”