One of the best things about the holiday season is sharing traditional songs and stories with your kids. But what if your son or daughter asks you, “What’s a sugarplum?” And, what exactly is figgy pudding? There is a rich tradition behind many of the edibles mentioned in holiday stories and carols—from sugarplums to plum pudding—most originating in Charles Dickens’s England and even earlier. It’s fun to explain to your family where these old English foods originated, plus it provides a good introductory lesson to British history and literature. With a little tinkering, you can make these special treats to share with your family this holiday season.
Visions of Sugar Plums
In the classic, “The Night Before Christmas,” the children are nestled snug in their beds while “visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Sugarplums originated in 16th-century England and were actual plums preserved in sugar, since fresh plums tended to spoil quickly, and it allowed the sweet fruits of summer to be enjoyed throughout the year, especially during the holidays. Sugared fruit, which is intensely sweet, was a treat to be saved for special occasions such as 12th Night.
To make sugarplums today, you don’t need to start with fresh plums, which are almost impossible to find in December. You can use dried apricots, prunes, or, as the following recipe calls for, figs.
- 10 dried figs
- 1/3 cup of slivered almonds
- ¼ cup honey
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ¼ cup sugar (white or colored)
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- Remove stems from figs.
- In a food processor or blender, add the figs, cocoa, cinnamon, and almonds. Chop or pulse until the ingredients are minced into small bits.
- Add the honey, almond extract, and orange zest to the blender or food processor, and pulse until mixed.
- Roll the mixture into one-inch balls. Sprinkle sugar on a sheet of waxed paper and roll balls in sugar to coat.
- Store sugarplums in a tightly sealed container for seven to ten days.
Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding!
In the holiday carol, “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly,” singers demand, “Bring us some figgy pudding.” Figgy pudding is also known as Christmas or plum pudding, featured in Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carol.” These steamed puddings, loaded with fruit, have been a quintessential British sweet that goes back to Shakespeare’s time. Most of them are highly alcoholic, soaked with booze from brandy to cognac. This version features slightly less alcoholic Guinness stout. You’ll be happy to know that most of the alcohol cooks away, making figgy pudding a family dessert.
- 2 cups raisins
- 1 cup prunes, chopped
- ¾ cup currants
- ½ cup golden raisins
- 1 cup Guinness stout
- 1 cup unbleached white flour
- ½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/3 cup mixed candied citrus peel
- ¼ cup finely chopped almonds
- ¼ teaspoon fresh or ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ cup fine, dry breadcrumbs
- 8 tablespoons butter (one stick)
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- Pinch of sea salt
- In a ceramic bowl, combine the raisins, prunes, currents, golden raisins, and stout, and allow the mixture to steep, covered, overnight.
- The next day, place the mixture in a large bowl and combine with the flour, brown sugar, citrus peel, almonds, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.
- In a smaller bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, butter, eggs, and salt. Add this mixture to the large bowl and mix well.
- Generously butter a 1½- quart pudding mold, Bundt pan, or a heatproof bowl. Spoon the batter into the mold, and cover with a lid or with buttered parchment or aluminum foil tied onto the pan or bowl with string.
- Boil enough water in a deep soup pot so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the mold. Once the water boils, reduce the heat, and place the pudding in the pot, and steam for 2 to 2-½ hours. (If you have a rack that fits in the soup pot, place it on the bottom, and put the pudding on the rack.) Allow the pudding to cool until just warm, then unmold onto a serving plate.
- Serve decorated with sifted confectioner’s sugar and a sprig of holly, or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Here We Come A’ wassailing
This carol is all about wassail, proclaiming love and joy not only to the listener but to their wassail, too. The term “wassail” dates back to 5th century England and refers to a hot, spiced wine used for drinking toasts on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night celebrations. Special wassailing songs—carols actually called wassails—were also part of the old English holiday tradition and conveyed musical wishes for good health. The carolers, often poor, carried bowls of the hot drink and offered sips to potential donors.
While old-fashioned wassail would be far too alcoholic for children, this delicious version is made with apple cider and will make your home smell super inviting with its spicy aroma.
- 1 gallon apple cider
- 12 small apples (crab apples or lady apples)
- ½ cup sugar or to taste if cider is tart
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 cups heavy cream
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon powdered ginger or 2 teaspoons fresh, grated ginger
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- Pierce the apples and bake them in a 350˚ oven until they split. Mash the apples until they form a paste.
- In a large pot, preferably enameled, slowly heat ¾ of the cider under warm but not boiling.
- In another pot, pour remaining cider and add the apples, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger, and bring to a boil.
- Combine the two liquids and pour into a heatproof bowl.
- Whip the cream and brown sugar together until the cream peaks.
- Spoon the whipped cream onto the wassail in a punch bowl, or add a dollop to each mug as it is served.