Sugar Plums

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,


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While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.

You know the verse.

But, can you tell me …

what, exactly, is a sugar plum?

My first thought:


Photo by Kristen Taylor via Wikimedia Commons

Fresh, juicy, and sugar-sweet—much like the ones that grow at my farm.

But history says that my vision of a sugar plum is not accurate, at least not in terms of Clement Moore’s famous poem.


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It turns out that the “sugar-plums” dancing through the children’s dreams were not plums at all. They were elaborate little confections created by hardening layers of sugar (a process called “panning”) around a central seed or nut. Modern candy makers use a similar method to manufacture comfit candies like Jordan almonds and peanut M&Ms, but the sugar plums of old were a sight to behold. They probably looked something more like …


Image courtesy of Sarahnocera via Wikimedia Commons


Image courtesy of Sarahnocera via Wikimedia Commons

Classic sugar plums were about the size of their fruity namesakes, and they often encased almonds, caraway seeds, or cardamom seeds. As you might imagine, the process of handcrafting sugar plums was labor-intensive, to say the least. According to Candy Professor Samira Kawash, it took more than 50 years after the original publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1923 for the panning procedure to approach some semblance of efficiency. “Depending on the size of the finished product, a batch could take several days to complete. Not just anybody could make these candies,” Kawash says of the original method. “Until the advent of machine innovations, comfits or sugar plums were a luxury good, most likely to be found in an aristocrat’s pocket or between courses at a banquet. By the 1860s, candy makers were using steam heat and mechanized rotating pans, so that less-skilled workers could make larger batches more easily. Sugar plums could be made in quantity, at a much lower price. So, sugar plums for all!”

Even now, though, comfit creation is “one of the most difficult and tedious methods in craft confectionery, requiring specialized equipment, careful heat control, and experience,” says confectionery historian Laura Mason.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure I won’t have time to whip up any sugar plum comfits before Christmas. Instead, I might just try turning my own visions of fresh sugar plums into holiday delights. If you’d like to do the same, take a peek at these sumptuous sugar plum recipes from The Huffington Post.


Image courtesy of Janet Hudson via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I never really thought about what a real sugar plum was , but they were indeed little works of sugar art. Wow, the details and the perfection! No wonder children dreamed about getting one of these perfect candies at Christmas. To actually receive one must have been quite exciting. Those ideas from the Huffington Post would make me very happy to receive on Christmas or anytime. The delicious things that people come up with using basic ingredients never ceases to amaze me! Tasha Tudor talks about “clear candies” for children’s stockings in her Christmas books. Apparently in the 1920s-1930s, there were places that created candies made of colored sugar blown into perfect toy forms that resembled hand blown glass. They could be hung on the tree on Christmas eve for the children or placed in their stockings from Santa. Have you ever heard of these or know more?

  2. Terry Steinmetz says:

    Wow! I’d love to sen an original sugar plum! I bet they were beautiful as well as delicious. I made a plum filled kringle this year for a dessert. Everyone raved about it!

  3. hi Winnie,
    You are in luck! Here, in Lancaster County PA, they still make those clear toys of stained glass colored sugar! they are made in antique candy molds and usually are animal shapes. Like a frog riding on an old fashioned high wheel bicycle. Or cats, dogs, turkeys, cows, horses and so on. Little Trains and such.They are little works of art and I always buy as many as I can in December for gifts. When I was a child they were made of barley sugar. I adore them. I would suck on mine all Christmas day. When I give them as gifts people cry with their old memories of happiness.

    Another old fashioned candy that is hard to find is ” cut rock” which is made and looks like Venetian glass beads. Another tiny work of art in sugar. Little scenes like Xmas trees and strawberries and such are imbedded inside each which is about 1/2 inch long

    Haven’t seen real sugar plums in America, but they sell them in Germany in the KrissKindleMarts in December.

  4. Antigone says:

    I researched sugar plums a few years ago, what I found was that a “proper British” sugar plum was finely chopped, dried fruits, brandy, nuts and honey and spices, rolled into a ball resembling a plum and coated in sugar so the sparkled. Made them last year and they were AMAZING!

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