The subject of sugar plums comes up often this time of year. Well, relatively often, anyway.
We don’t talk about them at all the rest of the year, so it’s curious that sugar plums (sometimes referred to as sugarplums, alloneword) figure prominently in two of the mainstays in the Christmas holiday canon. There’s the dancing fairy “queen of the sweets” in Tchaikowsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet (above), and we have the children’s fanciful thoughts in Clement Moore’s iconic poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (which you probably know better as “The Night Before Christmas”). You remember the passage: “[T]he children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”
Long winter’s nap? But the likelihood of you actually making or eating a sugarplum this holiday season is about as likely as your Ma to wear a kerchief (or your dad to wear a cap) for going to bed for a “long winter’s nap.”
Did you know…? Sugar plums are, in fact, not made of plums at all! They contain no plum-like substance, either. The sugar plum, also sometimes called a dragée or comfit, is a small candy made of layers upon layers of sugar, hardened around a central seed or kernel — kind of like an M&M, or perhaps, more closely, like a jawbreaker, but with an almond, or a caraway or cardamom seed in the middle.
Difficult and tedious, yay. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sugar plums were a popular confection, but made or purchased only for specially occasions because of how hard they are to make. In fact, confectionery historian Laura Mason [yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a confectionery historian] calls the process “one of the most difficult and tedious methods in craft confectionery,” taking several days to complete.
Fast away the old year passes (fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la). With a dwindling number of days left this year for holiday sweet-making, we thought we’d offer a list of favorite recipes for sweet treats that can be completed in a fraction of the time.
Got a candy thermometer and a little time to spend? Combine butter, sugar, cream, and a little vanilla for a batch of velvety caramels. Homemade caramels are so good, especially when covered in chocolate (as shown) or topped with some flaky, fancy sea salt. Helpful hint: Get a digital candy thermometer. Beeping cheerfully when you reach the critical “soft ball” or “hard ball” stage, the precision of a digital candy thermometer is worth the splurge, and spares you from having to find your reading glasses to read the numbers as you cook.
I do say, old chap. While you’re in the candy-making mode, try whipping up a batch of English toffee, perhaps spread with some melted chocolate and sprinkled with chopped pecans or English walnuts. [Also: use your candy thermometer while you heat the sugar to “soft crack” stage, and indulge your inner adolescent as you snicker about the funny names of candy-making temperatures.]
Nut job. One more indispensable holiday candy is homemade nut brittle – pecan or peanut, Brazil or cashew, it’s one of our favorites to make. This is a candy project that is best done with a helper. After you make a bubbling cauldron of 295°F molten sugar and nuts, you add butter, vanilla and baking powder, then pour the flaming-hot goo onto a cold, buttered pan or marble slab. You have to work quickly to spread out the candy as it rapidly cools, so having a helper to hold the heavy hot pan (or to spoon out and spread the hot brittle) is the smart and safe way to go.
Roll your own (truffles). Get some little paper candy cups from the art/craft supply store, and roll up some handmade chocolate truffles. The paper cups will keep the truffles, rolled in a dusting of powdered sugar, Dutch cocoa, or Maple or Cinnamon Sugar, from rubbing off on one another.
Let all your Christmases be [egg] white. For a quick and simple treat, toss shelled pecans (or your favorite nuts) in whipped egg white and coat in sugar and spice to make Candied Pecans. If you prefer your nuts with a little more heat, this Spiced Nuts recipe will do the trick – don’t forget our popular Spicy Nut Kit.
But what about the cookies? Holiday treat-making seems inextricably linked to cookie-baking, and no home is ready for a visit from Santa without a plate full of them, so we’ve included two popular wintertime cookie recipes on our list:
Triple Ginger Cookies bring a spicier kick to the old-fashioned Christmas staple, with (duh) three kinds of ginger: fresh, ground ginger, and diced crystallized ginger. These are the cookies we serve every year at the East Village Holiday Promenade – the Triple Ginger Cookie Kit comes with the spices you need plus the recipe. Serving suggestion: pair these cookies with hot mulled cider or wine.
For a different approach to the seasonal ginger cookie, this prize-winning recipe for Gingerbread biscotti is a perfect match with Holiday Chai (spiked or no), and is a tasty accompaniment to dip into any hot holiday beverage.
For extra credit, serve these treats with one of these holiday drinks. Or, while you are cooking and baking, just mix up a beverage for yourself.
[Pro tip: be prepared. Check to make sure you have all your cookie and candy ingredients, or do your AllSpice ingredient run before you start in on the Irish coffee, okay?]