Sugar-Plums and Comfits
An apprentice confectioner making nonpareils in a copper comfit pan over a barrel containg a chaffing dish of charcoal.
These tiny 'hundreds and thousands' were made by coating minute particles of orris root powder with layers of sugar syrup. Coatings were gradually built up by pouring a small quantity of hot syrup onto the seeds in the pan and allowing them to dry out between layers. This was a sticky and time-consuming job, as some comfits required up to thirty or forty layers of sugar, and had to be hardened in a stove between every eight coatings or so. Syrups were usually poured onto the comfits from a ladle, but a special funnel, known as a 'pearling funnel' or 'cot', with a spigot to control the flow, was also used.
Caraway seeds being coated with a thin layer of gum arabic in the balancing pan. This sealed in the oils and encouraged the sugar syrup to adhere more effectively.
From Tudor times onwards, the most popular comfits in England were those made with caraway seeds. These were consumed at the end of a meal with a glass of spiced wine as a carminitative medicine to prevent indigestion and flatulence.They were also used to adorn marchpanes, trifles, banebread and whigs. In contrast to the ragged long comfits, these were a type of 'smooth' comfit and were coated with a less dense syrup.
After being coated in the gum arabic solution, the carraway comfits are given their first few 'charges' of syrup.
As they dry in the warm pan, they are swirled around and rubbed through the hands in order to separate them. They turn grey at first, looking a little like rice grains, but gradually take on the syrup and become a dirty white. After ten coatings they are dried in a cool stove, which makes them a dazzling white. They are then given another ten coats and dried again. The procedure is repeated until the comfits reach the required size.
Coloured coatings were popular and were provided by staining the final layers of syrup with an edible pigment. Sanders, mulberry juice and cochineal were used for red, indigo stone for blue, the juice of spinach for green and saffron or gum gambodge for yellow. Early comfitmakers were unaware that gambodge is actually a toxic substance and acts as an emetic.
A confectioner making 'sugar plums' (sugared almonds) in a balancing pan. Since he is not using a pearling funnel, these are probably smooth.
What then were Sugar-plums?
Perhaps the most familiar kind of comfit to survive into modern times are sugared almonds, a type of sweet once commonly known in England as “sugar plums”. This archaic term was a generic name for any large comfit. In modern times, because the true meaning of sugar-plum has been forgotten, there has been a great deal of confusion about the true identity of this confection. It is erroneously assumed that sugar-plums were preserved plums rolled in sugar. An otherwise well-researched online essay by Sharon Cohen is completely based on this mistaken premise - Visions of Sugar Plums.
On a recently posted BBC website (December 2009), one of the costumed hosts of the popular Victorian Farm series makes the same error and demonstrates how to make a kind of crystalised plum in a video about sugar-plums. Although this is a very romantic idea, it is unfortunately based on the usual misunderstanding. Every Victorian child knew that "sugared plums" were not sugar-plums.
The earliest mention of "sugar-plum" seems to be in Thomas Decker's Lanthorne and Candlelight (London: 1608). There are numerous other references throughout the late seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which clearly define sugar-plums as large comfits.Most seem to have been big caraway comfits, though according to Theodore Garrett in the Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (London: 1890s, VII, p. 536) small strips of cinnamon were made to start off French Sugar Plums. In his definition of sugar-plums, Garrett, the most authoritative cookery author, of the nineteenth century, tells us,
"These are described under CARAWAY COMFITS, a more elaborate variety of them being known as DRAGÉES OR FRENCH SUGAR PLUMS."
Candied and crystalised plums were made by confectioners, but in England they were never called sugar plums.
Aniseed balls, gobstoppers and “hundreds and thousands” are also forms of comfit which have an ancient ancestry. There were many other kinds. The seeds of coriander, anise, fennel and cardamom were all coated with sugar and eaten with relish. Long comfits, made from thin strips of cinnamon bark or citrus peel, were used to decorate tarts, marchpanes and slabs of quince marmalade. In the eighteenth century, “hundreds and thousands” were known as 'shot comfits', or by their French name nonpareils and were made by sugar-coating celery seeds, or minute particles of orris root. Even hollow sugar eggs were coated in the balancing pan to hide the seam created by the mould. According to the London confectioner Jarrin, these were filled with little gifts such as “nicknacks. little almanacks, smelling bottles with essences, and even things of value”.
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