Food On The Hill: Sugarplums For The Holidays

Sugar plums. Photo by Felicia Orth
Los Alamos
The Nutcracker Ballet set in 1940s Los Alamos was extraordinary this year. The dancers, the sets, the costumes, the spy who danced through several scenes in pursuit of classified documents–all of it was thoroughly enchanting. It wasn’t the first time I’d wondered what a sugarplum is when the Sugarplum Fairy ruled the Land of the Sweets waiting for her prince to return; this year I followed through.

Turns out sugarplums were originally fennel or caraway seeds enrobed repeatedly in sugar to make a hard candy. More recently, the seeds have been toasted and mixed into chopped dried fruit and rolled in sugar.

With the right blender or food processor, they are easy to make and require no baking beyond toasting the nuts and the seeds. The flavor definitely improves overnight and the sugarplums will keep several days in the refrigerator. They make a sweet hostess gift, especially if presented in a pretty box. I experimented with rolling them in unsweetened cocoa instead of coarse sugar in order to reduce sweetness; I plan to experiment further with cornstarch for the same reason. The cocoa-rolled sugarplums were delicious, and the cocoa did not interfere with the dried fruit and nut favors. I was struck by the thought that they are essentially fruitcake without the flour, eggs and rum, so they make a nice sweet for the dairy and gluten-free, too.


Toast 6 ounces sliced or slivered almonds with1/4 teaspoon anise seeds, 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds by placing all on a dry baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for 5-10 minutes (watch carefully to avoid burning them). Place the nuts and spices in a powerful blender or food processor and pulse to chop. Add 4 ounces each dried plums (prunes), apricots and figs, and pulse many times more until the fruit is in small pieces. Move the mixture to a bowl and stir in 1/4 powdered sugar, 1/4 cup honey, and 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom. Scoop into small balls, about 1/4 ounce, and roll in coarse sugar. I used turbinado sugar, but many decorative sugars are available in large crystals. Allow to dry a bit if not serving immediately, and roll before serving. Happy holidays!