Sugarplums were cherished winter holiday confections in the Victorian era, but even then the term was coming to be applied somewhat liberally in reference to any plum-shaped candy or cake. Real sugarplums, the kind that dance in your head and after which fairies are named, are made from real plums.
And late summer, the season of plums, is the best time of year to make them. Plums are sweet, ripe, and real in summer. And sugarplums, like their notorious cousin the fruitcake, are best when they've had a chance to cure a few months in their own delicious essence.
They're also very time-consuming to make, and require patience and an anachronistically long attention span - unless one happens to be a glorious atavism with a full kitchen staff or Martha Stewart. For that reason, it is best to make as much as possible in one go, as a single batch is an extended affair.
- 1-2 pounds of ripe, firm plums (the larger the saucepan, the more you can make)
- Several pounds of lots of sugar! sneff recommends caster sugar, which will dissolve more quickly in the first step, reducing the chance of burning.
- a large, heavy stovetop pan, preferably enamel or teflon
- a wire baking rack (best to suspend this over a lined cookie pan)
Wash the plums, cut in half, and remove pits. Do not remove the peel, as it will help keep the plum's shape intact during the process.
Line the pan with a layer of sugar. Bed the plums, cut side down, on the sugar in a single layer. Don't press, just lay them down. Cover completely with another layer of sugar. Continue layering until all the plums have been used and are covered.
Put the pan on the stove over the lowest heat possible. The sugar needs to dissolve in the plum juices without burning. Consider this an experiment in minute fractional increases of temperature, punctuated by half-hour periods doing something else. When the sugar reaches the melting point, stir gently and scrape the sugar away from the sides of the pan, disturbing the fruit as little as possible.
When all the sugar is dissolved, increase the heat until the syrup comes to a gentle boil. Anything more than a gentle, smiling, tiny bubbles kind of boil will mushify the plums. Boil for one minute, then remove the pan from the stove.
Carefully place a plate or pan over the plums to keep them submerged in the syrup. Cover with the pan lid or a clean dish towel and let soak undisturbed at room temperature for three days. Note: if your kitchen is red planet hot in the summer, put the pan in the basement or some other cool place.
After three days, carefully remove the plums with a slotted spoon and bring the syrup to a boil. Carefully return the plums to the syrup, boil gently for one minute, remove from heat, and repeat soaking process (above). Then do it again - 9 days total soaking, and 3 short boils.
I am not making this up.
After the final soaking, remove the plums from the syrup, bring to a boil, and dissolve an additional cup of sugar. Let the syrup boil until it thickens, (it may also show some plum color now, depending) put the plums back in the pan, and boil gently for four minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Use your slotted spoon to lift out the plums, and rinse them under cool running water. Those that were slightly overripe may have disintegrated, but they'll still taste delicious. When they're ready.
At this stage, any remaining peel on the plums may be removed. Spread the plums on a wire rack and put in a warm dry place, ideally a gas oven with just the pilot light burning in it. If your oven is electric, warm it occasionally (just warm!). Tape a note to yourself on the dial so you don't burn sugarplums instead of simply preheating your oven later.
Turn the plums every other day. When the plums are almost dry (they should still feel slightly sticky) sprinkle each side with granulated sugar. Continue drying. (Total drying time: 2 days-2 weeks, depending on humidity). When the plums are completely dry, store in an air-tight tin or tupperware container. The longer they sit, the chewier and more candy-like they will become - and will last up to a year.
The above recipe is a modern derivation of a recipe found in the 1604 cookery book, Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, as described by