Visions of sugar plums may be dancing in children’s heads come Christmastime, but what the heck are they visualizing, exactly? We’ve always pictured sugar plums as some special variety of plum, but in reality that couldn’t be further than the truth.
The sugar plum has evolved a bit over the years, so there are a few different versions out there. The original sugar plums, which date back to the 1600s, were hardened sugar balls surrounding a seed, nut, or spice. Because the sugar layers were added via a technique called panning, the process was very labor-intensive, and the resulting treat was very expensive. In the 1860s, panning was mechanized so the product became much cheaper, although we rarely if ever see them these days. (Panning is the technique used to apply the hard candy shell to everything from M&Ms to Jordan almonds).
In recent years, a couple other versions of sugar plums have emerged. One is popular with home cooks and involves chopping up dried fruit and almonds and combining them with honey and spices including anise, fennel, cardamom, and fennel. The mixture is rolled into balls and then covered in sugar or shredded coconut. Another “sugar plum” variety out there is simply plum-flavored, plum-shaped candy.
And, in case you’re wondering, they’re called “plums” because of the small round shape of the original candies, not because they contain any actual plum.