Sugar plums are one of those items that are common in Christmas carols and stories and yet are basically unknown to modern revelers. (Other examples: wassail, yule, and figgy pudding. Furthermore, I’ve never seen mistletoe before, and I just saw real holly for the first time a few weeks ago, at the farmers’ market. I got excited, grabbed the leaves, and stabbed myself.)
My dictionary defines a sugar plum as a small ball of candy, and nothing more. There are not necessarily any plums in sugar plums. The word “plum” is associated with dried fruit, and good modern dictionaries still give one of the many meanings of “plum” as “a raisin.” The most common manifestation of sugar plums is in fact dried fruit and nuts, chopped up, sweetened, bound with honey, and rolled into little balls. While Edmonton isn’t awash with the fleshy fruits that lend themselves to drying, like apricots and figs, there are certainly lots of sour cherries and plums to be had. Even if you can’t find any from within the city, in the late fall the farmers’ markets are always full of dried fruit and nuts from BC.
The ratio at the core of my sugar plum recipe is two parts dried fruit to one part roasted nuts. You can use whatever dried fruit you have on hand, but I suggest finding a relatively neutral fruit, like prunes, to use as a base, to which you can add a smaller amount of tart fruit, like cranberries or Evans cherries. Sugar plums really benefit from a bit of acidity.
I run the fruit and nuts through a food processor, but you could just as easily chop them by hand.
As far as sweetening goes, it’s best to use a combination of honey and sugar. Honey is required to bind the fruit and nuts together, but using too much will make the sugar plums soft and sticky. I use half honey and half icing sugar. Icing sugar is ground very fine, so it dissolves and incorporates with the fruit even though there is very little moisture in the mix.
Some ground spice is welcome, but I’m careful not to overdo it. I add a quarter teaspoon for every two pounds of fruit/nut mix.
Sugar plums can be rolled in coarse sugar, but I find them plenty sweet as they are.
It’s good to make these a few days before you intend to serve them. Immediately after being rolled they’re quite sticky, but over time the surface dries out and becomes smooth and firm.
Master Ratio: 2:1 dried fruit to roasted nuts, by weight
- 8 oz prunes
- 2 oz dried cranberries
- 2 oz dried blueberries
- 6 oz roasted pecans
- 1/4 cup icing sugar
- 1/4 cup honey
- a bit less than 1/4 tsp freshly ground cinnamon
- Put the dried fruit and roasted nuts in a food processor and blitz until they’re broken into small pieces. The mixture should still be loose, not pasty.
- Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and knead with a stiff spatula until everything binds together.
- Shape the mixture into balls about an inch across. The little portion scoops with wiper blades work great for this. Also, I find that having slightly damp hands prevents the fruit mixture from sticking to your fingers.
- Let the sugar plums stand overnight. The surface will dry so that the candies are less sticky and easier to handle.