Sugar plums, round and humble, evoke a sense of otherworldly fancy – of mystic lore, ancient yuletide celebrations, of poetry. From Clement C. Moore’s much-cherished ‘Twas the Night before Christmas to sugar plum fairies of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, these beloved confections have woven themselves in and out of the culinary traditions of Christmas and Yule. And while sugar plums still hold a place of fanciful whimsy in our poetry and plays, the confections are little more than a vestige of the bygone days of the old-world, all but forgotten in modern kitchens. A simple sugar plum recipe contains but nuts and dried fruit – wholesome ingredients, that, in their humility, may lack cloying sweetness that modern holiday treats like sugar cookies, marshmallow fudge and peppermint bark offer to contemporary tastebuds.
With culinary tradition, of course, comes nourishment and while the complex sweetness of a traditional sugar plum may pale in comparison to modern-day sweets, the confections offer a greater and more complex depth of flavor – combining allspice and coriander, cinnamon and fennel or other spices with dates, dried cherries, figs, prunes and apricots. There was a time when prunes, wrinkled and plain, served as a treat and a time when sugar plums made up the stuff of children’s dreams.
The term sugar plum is a bit of a misnomer by today’s standards as it once applied to nearly any small, round treat – from dried fruit to hard candy made of sugar and coriander. Today we think of a plum strictly as a summer stone fruit, with the sugar plum itself being one of the sweetest varieties of fruit – lacking the mouth-puckering sour skin of other plums.
In the sugar plum recipe below, we call for soaking walnuts overnight in slightly salty warm water – a traditional process that not only improves flavor by releasing some of the nuts’ bitter tannins into the water, but also improves digestion of these foods by neutralizing enzyme inhibitors naturally present in nuts and seeds; moreover, the simple process also helps to facilitate the degradation of food phytate – a naturally occurring antinutrient which binds minerals in the digestive tract preventing your body from reaping the full complement of minerals offered by nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. We couple soaked walnuts with dates, prunes and unsulphured apricots as well as an assortment of old-world spices: cinnamon, allspice and coriander for a treat that is wonderfully nourishing and truly special.
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- 1 cup shelled walnuts
- ½ tsp unrefined sea salt
- zest of 1 orange
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp grated nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- ¼ tsp ground coriander
- 1 cup chopped pitted dates
- ½ chopped unsulphured apricots
- ½ cup chopped pitted prunes
- powdered unrefined cane sugar or unsweetened dessicated coconut, optional
- Toss walnuts into a mixing bowl with one-half teaspoon unrefined sea salt and add warm water to cover by two inches. Allow the nuts to soak, covered, in salty water overnight between eight and twelve hours.
- After the nuts have soaked between eight and twelve hours, drain them in a colander and rinse them well. Pat them dry with a kitchen towel.
- Toss the soaked nuts into a food processor with the zest of one orange, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, coriander as well as chopped pitted dates, unsulphured apricots and pitted prunes.
- Pulse the mixture three to four times to combine, then process the dried fruit, walnuts and spices until a paste forms – about four or five minutes.
- Transfer the paste to a mixing bowl and form the sugar plums by rolling about two tablespoons of the paste in the palms of your hands until a round ball forms. Dredge the sugar plum in powdered unrefined cane sugar or unsweetened dessicated coconut.