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)
“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)