Sugar plums are some of the most iconic Christmas desserts and yet most people have never had them. What is a sugar plum, and how do you make one? Here’s what you need to know!
You have probably heard ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas several hundred times, but if you are like me, you may not have stopped to find out just what a sugar plum is after hearing the verse:
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
I always assumed that this referred to a dessert recipe made with sugared and baked plums, but I was wrong.
What are Sugar Plums?
It turns out that the traditional candies had nothing to do with plums. They were seeds (often coriander) coated with layer upon layer of melted sugar. At some point, the term came to represent all manner of sweet things. (To learn more, read the Atlantic article entitled Sugar Plums: They Are Not What You Think They Are by Samira Kawash)
Today, this dessert is something else entirely. A modern version like mine is a no-bake dessert made by rolling up balls of dried fruit, nuts, honey, and spices in sugar.
They could be called healthy – before you roll them in sugar.
This dessert tastes more like energy bars than cookies, which is actually a good thing around Christmas time when we are bombarded with sweet after sweet.
For my recipe, you’ll need:
- Dried fruit – I use pitted dates, apricots, and prunes (dried plums). You can always experiment with your favorite dried fruits; many people add raisins to theirs.
- Honey – Honey binds it all together.
- Walnuts – Whole walnuts are usually cheaper than the chopped ones, so I buy the whole ones and chop them with everything else when I make the recipe. You can use almonds if you prefer.
- Orange zest – This brightens the flavor.
- Spices – Most of the spices found in this treat, like the nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, are typical for desserts. However, the coriander makes this recipe pop! It also connects the modern dessert to the traditional candy of the same name. Don’t skip it!
- Coarse sugar (sanding sugar) – This is optional, but I highly recommend it for decorating. It makes the sugar plums sparkle!
How It’s Made
Start by toasting the walnuts. It gives them a much more robust flavor. Place them on a cookie sheet in a single layer and bake at 300 F for 8 to 10 minutes or until the nuts turn a deeper brown color. Remove and let them cool to room temperature.
Add all of the ingredients (included the toasted walnuts) to a food processor and process for about a minute until there are no large pieces of anything. If you grab some of it, it should stick together.
Roll the mixture into small balls. Use a disher to help make the balls evenly-sized. I’ve made these really small (teaspoon-sized, yielding 50 balls) and made them much larger (2 tablespoon-sized, yielding 16 balls).
Roll each of the balls in coarse sugar (sanding sugar).
Expert Tips and FAQs
I like to place each sugar plum into a mini cupcake liner. You can find so many cute holiday-themed liners [paid link] that will make these look so festive!
You can also use colored sanding sugar and even use several different colors. You can purchase sanding sugar [paid link] in every possible color or dye your own using food coloring.
I’ve also decorated sugar plums with edible glitter. Some edible glitters are made of plastic and really aren’t meant to be eaten. I recommend Jewel Dust sold by Layer Cake Shop. It’s an example of an FDA-approved edible glitter. I dust them in powdered sugar first since the glitter shows up better on white.
The historic version consisted of seeds (often coriander) that were coated with layer upon layer of melted sugar. The modern recipe is a no-bake dessert made by rolling up balls of dried fruit, nuts, honey, and spices in sugar.
Like fruit cake, sugar plums actually taste better over time. You can store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a month.
Sure! You need a total of two cups of dried fruit. If you want to switch it up and experiment with raisins, cranberries, or cherries, go for it!
Yes. You can leave off the nuts. The texture won’t be quite the same, but they will still taste great!
I make each one 2 tablespoons big so they will fit in mini cupcake liners, but you can make them as large or small as you want.
- Christmas (plum) pudding
- Double chocolate chip cookies
- Gingerbread cupcakes
- Gingerbread house
- 2 cups toasted walnuts
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- 1 cup pitted prunes
- 1/2 cup dried apricots
- 1/2 cup pitted dates
- 1/2 cup sanding sugar optional, for decorating
- Place all of the ingredients except for the sanding sugar in the food processor and process for a minute or until everything is finely chopped and sticks together if you squeeze it.
- Form the mixture into balls, about two tablespoons each.
- Roll the balls in sanding sugar.
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How long will these keep?
I’m not entirely sure as we eat them fairly quickly. But, I would suspect that they would be fine for a week or even more if you kept them in the fridge. As I said in the post though, the sparkle will absorb into them very quickly though, so if you want them sparkly, sparkle just before serving.
Have always wanted to make! Thank you!
Have just looked up “Disco Dust” and everything seems to say it shouldn’t be eaten, just used as decoration.
I researched this ‘edible’ glitter for a long time today. The only reason it is called edible is that it (supposedly), all just passes through the body. The glitter is made of PLASTIC.
I wouldn’t want to eat tons of it, but I feel OK eating a little. My understanding is that it comes right out of you.. you may have sparkly poop.
We just don’t deliberately eat plastic, or feed it to others. Technically, it’s purposely adulterating food with an inedible product.
There’s no reason that a baker would know exactly what happens when a person eats tiny, sharp flecks of plastic that then moves thru the human body.
Disco dust is plastic craft glitter meant to be used ONLY on items that will be removed before eating.
To keep something edible, edible glitter should be used. It’s made from gum arabic, sanding sugar, or gelatin.
These look great! If i were to make these for gifts for a christmas hamper (placed in little boxes or tied in some cellophane), how long would you advise they could keep for? Hx
Great post! Like your other readers, I always thought sugar plums were literal! English can be a sneaky little thing, right? I was wondering what would happen if you poured some melting chocolate on these and popped them in the oven for about half an hour ; I did that and they were beyond delicious. Thanks for the recipe, the ingredients really complement each other.
Love your idea! Sounds fantastic!
I made and just posted this on my blog. They are such a great treat. It would mean a lot if you’d come take a look: http://piesandplots.net/sugar-plums/ Thanks for a great recipe :)
I have always been interested by sugar plums. I don’t even think I’ve had one. They sound wonderful and easy to make :)
Lol, I thought sugar plums were just a kind of plum :P Anyway, these sound good!
I NEVER knew what sugar plums actually were until reading this! So interesting!!