That familiar line from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published anonymously in 1823, some 20 years before Dickens wrote his Christmas Novella.
And while sugar plums may have originally been sugar coated seeds (known as comfit), summer fruit was certainly candied as a method of perservation that would help an otherwise quickly degrading piece of fruit like a plum last well into Christmas when it would have been a treasured gift.
These plums came from my second year “Blues Jam” plum tree and the fact that I only harvested a small bowl worth makes these sugar plums are all the more special. The flavor is not as cloyingly sweet as I had expected, nor does it taste anything like a dried plum. They have the bright and delicate flavor and fragrance of fresh plums – surely a welcome vision to dance in your head on a wintery December day.
To make the following recipe halve your plums and remove the pits. Into a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pan, pour 1/2 inch layer of sugar onto which you will lay your plum halves, stone side down. Cover each successive layer with another 1/2 inches of sugar until you have used up all your plums. Heat the sugar slowly and bring it to simmer until the sugar is dissolved and has made a syrup, or clarified. Remove them from heat, submerge the plums completely in syrup by covering them with a saucer, and steep them for 3 days. After 3 days remove the plums with a slotted spoon, reheat the syrup to a simmer and add your plums back. Poach the fruit for 1 minute then cool, submerge and again steep them for 3 days. Repeat the process twice more. On the fourth and final time, simmer them in the syrup for 5 minutes. Remove the fruit with a slotted spoon, rinse them well with water and dry them in a dehydrator or on a rack in a low oven. Save the cooled syrup to use for making homemade plum soda from a ginger bug. or to brush cooling cakes.
One other way to personalize these is to add fragrant flavorings to the sugar once it’s turned to syrup form. Lemon verbena would be wonderful with plums but jasmine, hardy ginger, lemon balm, chamomile and mint would all be wonderful too. I imagine candying poppy or fennel seeds with mint would be a lot like a tic tac.
Here is the recipe in Elinore’s words:
TO DRIE APRICOCKS, PEACHES, PIPPINS OR PEARPLUMS
Take your apricocks or pearplums, & let them boile one walme in as much clarified sugar as will cover them, so let them lie infused in an earthen pan three days, then take out your fruits, & boile your syrupe againe, when you have thus used them three times then put half a pound of drie sugar into your syrupe, & so let it boile till it comes to a very thick syrup, wherein let your fruits boile leysurelie 3 or 4 walmes, then take them foorth of the syrup, then plant them on a lettice of rods or wyer, & so put them into yor stewe, & every second day turne them & when they be through dry you may box them & keep them all the year; before you set them to drying you must wash them in a litlle warme water, when they are half drie you must dust a little sugar upon them throw a fine Lawne.
– Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, 1604