Sugarplums belong to the comfit family, a confection traditionally composed of tiny sugar-coated seeds. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word sugarplum thusly: “A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugared and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit.” The earliest mention of this particular food is 1668. The term also has another meaning “Something very pleasing or agreeable; esp. when given as a sop or bribe,” which dates to 1608.

“Sugarplums were an early form of boiled sweet. Not acutally made from plums…they were nevertheless roughly the size and shape of plums, and often had little wire stalks’ for suspending them from. They came in an assortment of colours and flavours, and frequently, like comfits, had an aniseed, caraway seed, etc. at their centre. The term was in vogue from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, but is now remembered largely thanks to the Sugarplum Fairy, a character in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet (1892.)”
An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 329)

Visions of sugarplums/Sharon Cohen…history and instructions for making them.

What are comfits?
“Comfit, an archaic English word for an item of confectionery consisting of a seed, or nut coated in several layers of sugar…In England these small, hard sugar sweets were often made with caraway seeds, known for sweetening the breath (hence kissing confits). Up to a dozen coats of syrup were needed before the seeds were satisfactorily encrusted. Comfits were eaten a sweets, and also used in other sweet dishes; for example seed cake was made with caraway comfits rather than loose caraway seeds as in the 19th century. Confectioners as early as the 17th century recognized by varying the proportions of sugar in the syrup they could change the final texture, making pearled comfits or crisp and ragged comfits. The word comfit remained in use in English up until the 20th century: Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, has a box of comfits in her pocket.”
Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 208)

Why call them comfits?
“The latin word conficere was used to describe the act of puttng together, making up or compounding their potions. From that were derived the English terms to confect and confection. Another one, comfit, came from the Latin in a more roundabout fashion, for its immediate root was the French confit. Used at first for fruits preserved in sugar, comfit soon defined sugar-covered spices (pills in other words)…By the end of the fifteenth century, confection had acquired the meaning of a sweetmeat. In the early seventeeth century, the terms comfit-maker and confectioner both described people who made sweets.”
Sugarplums and Sherbet: The prehistory of sweets, Laura Mason [Prospect Books:Devon] 2004 (p. 25)
[NOTE: The word confit, decending from the same root, applies to a savory potted fowl.]

Early manufacturing processs
“Comfit making demanded both leisure and special equipment; a ladle, a slice, a basin to heat the sugar suspended from cords over another bowl containing hot coals, and yet another basin in which the seeds, fruits or spices were treated. Molten sugar was ladled over them, and after each application they had to be dried and cooled. Several coats of sugar were needed. Caraways will be fair at twelve coats; and even crisp and ragged comfits, for which the sugar was boiled to a greater height, required eight to ten coats. Fortunately there were professional confectioners in the larger towns. So the gentle woman unequaled to the task of creating her own banqueting fare could purchase it herself, or commission kinsfolk or friends to bring back sweetmeats when they travelled on business.”
Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, C. Anne Wilson [Academy Chicago:Chicago] 1991(p. 312)

Italian confetti
“Confetti (comfits in English) are nuts or seeds or spices with a coating of hard sugar. The best known in Italy today are probably the sugared almonds which are sent to relatives to celebrate weddings and similar joyful life events. The little circles of coloured paper tossed over the bride at weddings are a substitute for the ancient custom of scattering seeds and ritual breads, symbols of fertility and renewal, which predate Christian ceremonies. The combination of seeds and sugar was quite potent, and apart from their symbolic value, confetti were made and used by apothecaries as both medicine and gtreats; they were offered at the end of lavish banquets, as exquisite morels and soothing digestives, and brought in to offer visitors coming to pay the ritual congratulatory visit to women after childbirth. In Florence in 1471, Ser Girolamo di Ser Diovanni di Ser Taddeo de Colle, a comfortably off notary, paid a large sum of money for confetti (also known as treggea or manuscristi) as his wife Catereina went into labour…The sweetmeats brought by guests would have included confetti… The making of confetti was slow and laborous, the seeds or nuts to be coated were put into a sugar syrup at the manuscristi stage…and swirled and tossed in a concave metal tray suspended over a low heat…confetti went through this treatment over and over again, eacy layer of sugar had to dry out completely before the next coating, and many coatings were needed.”
Oxford Comnpanion to Italia Food, Gillian Riley [Oxford University Press:New YOrk] 2007 (p. 138)

“The production of comfits and confections in Sicily probably kept pace with the production of sugar itself. This was greatly diminished during the turbulent decades following the extinction of the Norman dynasty, reduced perhaps to small plantations scaled to local consumption. Nonetheless, knowledge and techniques survived, ready to accompany the extroadinar expansion in sugar production that began at the end of the fourteenth century, and to satisfy the requirements of the newly established royal court. Comfits always appeared among the gifts that the city of Palermo presejted to royal amassadors and other VIPs. In 1417 the wife of a viceroy received a tribute of almond, anise, and coriander comfits….”
Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, Mary Taylor Simeti [Ecco Press:Hopewell NJ] 1989 (p. 224)


Candy Cane!

The origin of the candy cane is an interesting study of food lore and legend. It is easy to find information on this topic in books and on the Internet. The most popular story is the one about the German choirmaster who handed these out to his young singers in 1670 to keep them quite during a long church service. There is also controversy as to the origin of the shape. Does it represent a shepherd’s crook? Or the letter “J” for Jesus? Bear in mind, most of these stories are undocumented.

How to make candy canes? This is from a professional text:

“Candy canes for Christmas
Run out a batch of any flavor stick candy, usually peppermint and lemon are the best sellers, spin these sticks any size you wish and in cutting these cut off at angles. Now have your helper roll them so as to keep them round an when they begin to get cold crook the angle, then set them to one side to harden. Your helper’s rolling them until they become cold keeps them from getting flat on one side which affects the sale of them greatly. It is best when spinning these out to make one end of the stick smaller than the other, then place the crook on the large end and have the small end ofr the end of the cane. Candy canes can be made in any flavor or color, or any size desired.”
Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher, W.O. Rigby, Nineteenth edition [1919?] (p. 213)

Christmas Cookies

cookieChristmas cookies

Cakes of all shapes and sizes (including smaller items such as cookies) have been part of festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. They were highly prized and quickly incorporated into European baked goods. Christmas cookies, as we know them today, trace their roots to these Medieval European recipes. Dutch and German settlers introduced cookie cutters, decorative molds, and festive holiday decorations to America. Dutch New Year’s cookies were also sometimes molded into fancy shapes. German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas. Sugar cookie type recipes descended from English traditions. Did you know Animal crackers began as edible ornaments?

“By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe. German families baked up pans of Lebkuchen and buttery Spritz cookies. Papparkakor (spicy ginger and black-pepper delights) were favorites in Sweden; the Norwegians made krumkake (thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers). The earliest Christmas cookies in America came ashore with the Dutch in the early 1600s.”
—“America’s Best Holiday Cookies,” McCall’s [magazine], December 1994 (p. 85)

The flood of cheap imported wares form Germany between 1871 and 1906 when the import laws were changed, inundated our Christmas markets with cooking utensils like…cookie cutters…Unlike homemade counterparts, or local tinsmith’s wares, these tools depicted highly stylized images, often frawn from secular themes or…with subjects designed specifically to hang on the Christmas tree. Likewise, recipes appeared in popular cookbooks to better match the demands of such utensils…In a sense, with the advent of inexpensive tin cutters, new emphasis was placed on shape, where in the past, many homemade cookies simply had been square or round. Bells, Christmas trees, camels, crimped wares (cutters with zigzag edges), lilies, Sant Clauses, turkeys, all of these elaborate shapes tended to deemphasize texture and flavor.”
The Christmas Cook: Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets, William Woys Weaver [Harper Perennial:New York] 1990 (p. 106)


Bring us some Figgie Pudding!!

Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding)
Christmas pudding dates back to Medieval times. Traditionally made on Stir up Sunday, this special dessert contains charms symbolizing good luck for the New Year. Hard sauce was introduced in the 19th century.

How old is the tradition?
“Christmas pudding, the rich culimation of a long process of development of ‘plum puddings’ which can be traced back to the early 15th century. The first types were not specifically associated with Christmas. Like early mince pies, they contained meat, of which a token remains in the use of suet. The original form, plum pottage, were made from chopped beef or mutton, onions and perhaps other root vegetables, and dried fruit. As the name suggests, it was a fairly liquid preparation: this was before the invention of the pudding cloth made large puddings feasible. As was usual with such dishes, it was served at the beginning of the meal. When new kinds of dried fruit became available in Britain, first raisins, then prunes in the 16th century, they were added. The name ‘plum’ refers to a prune; but it soon came to mean any dried fruit. In the 16th century variants were made with white meat…and gradually the meat came to be omitted, to be replaced by suet. The root vegetables disappeared, although even now Christmas pudding often still includes a token carrot…By the 1670s, it was particularly associated with Christmas and called ‘Christmas pottage’. The old plum pottage continued to be made into the 18th century, and both versions were still served as a filing first course rather than as a dessert…What currently counts as the traditional Christmas pudding recipe has been more or less established since the 19th century.”
Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2000 (p. 184-5)

“…the name Christmas pudding appears to be a comparatively recent coinage, first recorded in Anthony Trollope’s Doctore Thorne (1858). The association of dishes containing mixed dried fruit and spices…with Christmas is a longstanding one, though. Most of them originally contained dried plums, or prunes, but long after these had been replaced by raisins the term plum lingrered on… Nowadays served only at Christmas…this was formerly a common year-round pudding.”
An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 76)

“The plum pudding’s association with Christmas takes us back to medieval England and the Roman Catholic Chruch’s decree that the ‘pudding should be made on the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity, that it be prepared with thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and the twelve apostles, and that that every family member stir it in turn from east to west to honor the Magi and their supposed journey in that direction.’… Banned by the Puritans in the 1660s for its rich ingredients, the pudding and its customs came back into popularity during the reign of George I. Known sometimes as the Pudding King, George I requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal feast when he celebrated his first Christmas in England after arriving from Hanover to take the throne in 1714. By 1740, a recipe for ‘plum porridge’ appeared in Christmas Entertainments. In the Victorian era, Christmas annuals, magazines, and cookbooks celebrated the sanctity of family as much as the sanctity of Jesus’ birth, and the tradition of all family members stirring the pudding was often referenced…Poorer families made the riches version of plum pudding that they could afford…Even workhouse inmates anticipated a plum pudding on Christmas Day.”
Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, Andrea Broomfield [Praeger:Westport CT] 2007 (p. 150-151)

What is the classic recipe?
There are as many recipes for Christmas pudding as there are cooks. These notes, circa 1875, sum it up best:

Christmas Plum Pudding.— The plum pudding is a national dish, and is despised by foreign nations because they never can make it fit to eat. In almost every family there is a recipe for it, which has been handed down from mother to daughter through two or three generations, and which never has been and never will be equalled, much less surpassed, by any other…It is usualy, before sending it to table, to make a little hole in the top and fill it with brandy, then light it, and serve it in a blaze. In olden time a sprig of arbutus, with a red berry on it, was stuck in the middle, and a twig of variegated holly, with berries, placed on each side. This was done to keep away witches…If well made, Christmas plum pudding will be good for twelve months.”
Cassell’s Dictonary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations [Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.: London] 1875 (p. 137)


More Christmas Dinner Menus

Cookbooks at this time were written by and for the wealthy. The following menu reflects what an English nobleman might have served his guests at Christmas. Some early American settlers might have considered these foods “traditional” holiday fare, even though they probably set a simpler table. Note: Not all colonial-era Christian Americans celebrated Christmas. Think: Puritan Pilgrims & Quakers and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.

“A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in Order.
: Oysters. 1. A collar of brawn. 2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones. 3. A grand Sallet. 4. A pottage of caponets. 5. A breast of veal in stoffado. 6. A boil’d partridge. 7. A chine of beef, or surloin roast. 8. Minced pies. 9. A Jegote of mutton with anchove sauce. 10. A made dish of sweet-bread. 11. A swan roast. 12. A pasty of venison. 13. A kid with a pudding in his belly. 14. A steak pie. 15. A hanch of venison roasted. 16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves. 17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste. 18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded. 19. Two large capons, one larded. 20. A Custard.

The second course for the same Mess. Oranges and Lemons. 1. A Young lamb or kid. 2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded. 3. A pig souc’t with tongues. 4. Three ducks, one larded. 5. Three pheasants, 1 larded. 6. A Swan Pye. 7. Three brace of partridge, three larded. 8. Made dish in puff paste. 9. Bolonia sausages, and anChoves, mushrooms, and Cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish. 10. Six teels, three larded. 11. A Gammon of Westphalia Bacon. 12. Ten plovers, five larded. 13. A quince Pye, or warden pye. 14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded. 15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins &c. 16. A dish of Larks. 17. Six dried neats tongues. 18. Sturgeon. 19. Powdered Geese. Jellies.”
The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May, facsimile 1685 edition [Prospect Books:Devon] 2000 (pages unnumbered)


Christmas Dinner in the 1990’s

Christmas Dinner 1990’s Style: [1990] “Enjoy a night-before feast: Cornish Hens with Savory Stuffing, Sweet Red Pepper Puree in Pepper Boats, Sweet and White Potato Puree, Broccoli with Walnut Butter, Vegetable Consomme, Paris Brest with sun-caramel halo.”(p. 113) “Make heavenly delights: A[pricot Diamonds, Swedish Ginger Cutouts, Linzer Jewels, Orange Star Stack-Ups.” (p. 114) —Family Circle, December 18, 1990 [NOTE: Advertisements for Microwave Pressure Cooker, Burton Stove-Top Grill, Corning Visions Cookware, Mirro AirBake Insulate Bakeware.] [1991] “For Americans wondering how to send goodies to US servicemembers, there are some very important ‘don’ts’ says Susan Templin, manager of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultyr Hotline. Don’t send anything made with pork products or alcohol because of Saudi government restrictions. Don’t send anything perishable. Packages take 14 to 20 days to get to Saudi Arabia…Consider items that can withstand the delay, high temperatures, and rough handling…Ms. Templin suggests store-bought cookies; cakes and breads that come in tins or cans; jarred or canned nuts, pretzels, popcorn; beef jerky; dried fruit; hard candy; presweetened drink mixes (sugar-sweetened fare better than artificially sweetened mixes)…Homemade goods should be addressed to a specific servicemenber or unit. Nestle Foods Corporation is one company offereing ‘desert-safe’ recipes…Hershey Foods Corporation has come out with the coveted ‘Desert Bar.’ It was developed in response to the Army’s request for a heat-resistant chocolate bar made with real milk chocolate. Some 144,000 bars were shipped to Saudi Arabia. The ‘Desert Bar’ replaces the old ‘Tropical Chocolate’ bar…It has been tested at 120 degrees F. for 14 weeks. As far as morale enhancers go, perhaps nothing can top the troops’ Christmas dinner: real turkey, gravy, shrimp, cranberry sauce, cornbread, instant potatoes, nuts, sweet potatoes, fruit cake. Total cost: $3.1 million.” —“Food: Melts in Your Mouth…not in the sand,” Kirsten A. Conover, Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 1991 (p. 14) [1992] “Holiday Brunch: Cran-Berry Cocktail, Eggnog French Toast, Bazked Ham Slices, Fresh Strawberries, Coffee.” (p. 238) —Good Housekeeping, December 1992 [1993] “Holiday Cookies: Spice cookies, strawberry tart cookies, snowflake cookies, mocha pecan balls, chocolate-dipped hazelnut shortbread wedges, coconut bars, walnut cups, Spritz Christmas wreath cookies, fruit cookies.” (p. 130) “Casual Christmastime Dinner: Prosciutto-Wrapped Breadsticks with Fig, Cucumber Tapenade Canapes, Baked Polenta with Shittake Gagout, Arugula Radichio and Endive Salad, Cranberry Sweril ice-Cream cake.” (p. 151) “Christmas Dinner: Oxtail Bouillon with Parmesan Puffs, Oxtail Pate, Roasted Rack of Venison and Shallots with Dried-Cranberry Gravy, Brown-and-Wild-Rice Pilaf with Porcini and Parsley, Puree of Three Root Vegetablesj, Mixed Greens, With Hibet Vinaigrette and Gorgonzola, Chocolate Linzertorte.” (p. 172) —Gourmet, December 1993) [NOTE: Advertisements for Calphon cookware, Healthy Choice Fat Free Cheeses, 2nd Avenue Deli by Mail, Micro-beer of the Month Club.] [1994] “A Joyful Feast: Garlic-studded roast pork loin with fragrant sprigs of fresh rosemary, Filet of beef with cheesy potatoes and baby carrots, Thyme-scented chicken roaster with ripe figs, Festive red-and-green Christmas Salad.” (p. 108-109) —Family Circle, December 20, 1994 [1995] “Come for Christmas: Mushroom-Bacon Bundles, Chinese Firecrackers, Spinach California Rolls, Smoked Turkey and Lettuce Packets, Zesty Beef Wrap-Ups, Herb Popovers, Christmas Goose, Stuffed Potatoes with Buttermilk and Bacon, Roasted Beet and Orange Salad, Parsnip Puree, Wild Rice Orzo and Mushrooms, Standing Rib Roast with Onion Gravy, Creamed Roasted Baby Onions with Peas, Brussels Sprouts with Msutard Seeds, Carrot Puree, Turnip Puree with Fried Onions, Roast Fresh Ham, Chritmas Ice Ceran Bombe, Holly Wreth Cake, Linzer Cookies.” (p.107-112) “Holiday Poke Cake.” (p, 155, Jell-O & Cool Whip advertisement.) —Woman’s Day, December 19, 1995 [1996] “Christmas Dinner: Dilled Shrimp with Cucumber Ribbons, Spinach-Mushroom Stuffed Tenterloin, Oven-roasted Parsnips & Carrots, Wild Rice Pilaf with Dried Cranberries, Winter Salad with Ripe Pears & Toasted Pecans, Brandied Buche de Noele with Meringue Mushrooms, Double-Berry Linzer Tart.” (p. 181-182) —Good Housekeeping, December 1996 [1997] “New Mexico Christmas, Open House Buffet: Sesame-Nut Crunch, Salsas Dips and Tortilla Chips, Christmas Posole, Black Bean Soup with Hot-Sauce Bar, Hickory-smoked Turkey, Apricot Cherry and Green Chili Chutney, Assorted Mustards and Mayonnaise, Sandwich Breads and Rolls, Tiny Chili and Corn Muffins, Steamed Tamales, Extra-Spicy Gingersnaps, Bizcochitos, House-Gift Desserts, Self-Serve Beverage Bar, Chimayo Punch, Mexican Hot Chocolate.” (p. 81) “Native American Christams Feast: Potawatomi Popcorn, Chenin Blanc, Field Greens with Sage-Pinon Vinaigrette, Crusted Tenderloin with Chipotle Onions, Oven-roasted Roots, Quinoa wasn Wild Rice Stuffed Squash, Mushroom and Sunchoke Saute, Cabernet Sauvignon, Simply A’Maize’ing Corn Ice Cream, Chocolate Sorbet, Raspberry Sauce, Sparking Wine.” (p. 88) —Sunset (Mountain Edition), December 1997 [1998] “A Taste of Chrismas Past: Crab Cakes and Baby Greens with Lemon Vinaigrette, Champagne, Crown Roast of Pork with Apple and Pork Stuffing and Cider Gravy, Butternut Squash and Rutabaga Puree, Sweet-and-Sour Red Cabbage, hard Cider or Pinot Noir, Chocolate-Orange Buche de Noel.” (p. 118) “Salmon and Spinach Terrine with Cucumber-Dill Sauce, Champagne, Roast Turkey with Bourbon Gravy, Corn Bread Succotash Stuffing, Maple-Glazed yams with Pecan Topping, Brussels Sprouts with Bacon, Cranberry-Kumquat Chutney, Zinfandel, Syrah or Chardonnay, Warm Pear Shortcakes with Brandied Cream.” (p. 120) “Season’s Best Cookies: Christmas Tree Shortbread, Spiced Snowflakes, Coconut-Macadamia Crescents, Fudgy Hazelnut Brownies with Marbled Chocolate Glaze.” (p. 133) “Christmas Breakfast: Double-Salmon and Sweet Potato Hash with Poached Eggs, Cranberry-Studded Creme Fraiche Scones, Ginger Butter, Apple-Fig Crisp.” (p. 139) —Bon Appetit, December 1998 [NOTE: Advertisements for Analon Professional Cookware, Wearever Air baking pans, Cuisinart non-stick cookware, Panasonic National (steamer & rice cooker), Salton 1,2,3 ‘Spresso (esresso machine).] [1999] “Dessert of the Month: Fig Holiday Roll.” (p. 79) “Twelve Days of Christmas: Buttered Carrots, Roast Poussin with Prunes and Thyme, Caramelized Onion Tartlets, Pate Brisee, Rice Pilaf with Herbes de Provence, Toasted Almonds and Driec Pears, Seven Swans A-Swimming, Cooked Custard Eggnog, Spicy Pecans, Ramos Gin Fizz, Gingerbread Cupcakes with Butter or Chocolate Glaze, Meringue Buttercream, Oatmeal Cookies.” (p. 272-282) . —Martha Stewart Living, December 1999-January 2000