Posts tagged ‘comfits’
I have been investigating the term sugar plum, which refers to a panned seed or nut candy (comfit or dragee) from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Think a small jaw breaker, but with a caraway seed at the center. Sugar plum could also refer in the nineteenth century to confectionery in general, or more narrowly to the sorts of candy that are smaller and rounder. My essay on sugar plum should be appearing on The Atlantic web site shortly, but meanwhile here I wanted to share some interesting descriptions of candy manufacture that I came across in my research.
An 1868 magazine article on “Sweets and their Manufacture” introduces readers to the innovations in confectionery made possible as a result of steam heat. Here is a detailed description of the process that yields the sugar plum, in this case based on an almond:
The veritable sugar-plum, or almond-drop, is made in a very interesting manner. A number of almonds, after being coated with a little gum to catch the white sugar, are thrown into a deep pan surrounded with steam. This pan revolves sideways at an angle of forty-five degrees. As it revolves the almonds, of course, tumble over one another, and whilst they are doing so, the workman pours over them from time to time liquid white sugar, allowing a sufficient time to elapse between each supply for the sugar to harden upon the comfit. In this way it grows by the imposition of layer upon layer, until it is the proper size. By this simple motion, the sugar is deposited in the smoothest and most regular manner.
This is a description of the process confectioners call “panning,” and the finished product will be familiar to modern readers as a species of what we call “Jordan almonds.” A similar process is the basis for the broad category of comfits.
Even with the aid of a mechanized rotating pan and steam heat, comfits are a tedious and exacting enterprise. And when it was done by hand, comfit making took days. Although the author of this 1838 recipe insists that comfits may be “easily made at home,” the extensive instructions belie this easy reassurance:
A preserving-pan must be provided with two handles, through which a string is fastened that runs across, which is connected with a pulley attached to a beam, so that at the least touch, the pan rises or falls, or swings backward and forward. … There must be, besides this pan, two saucepans, one to hold a slightly warm solution of gum arabic, the other to contain some syrup which is boiled during a quarter of an hour, when some of finest white starch of wheat is dissolved in water and mixed with it. Under the swinging-pan there is a charcoal fire at a sufficient distance to give it only a gentle heat. The seeds of which the comfits or sugar-plums are to be made, are put into the swinging-pan when it is just warm. A ladleful of the solution of gum is poured over them, and the seeds are briskly stirred and rubbed with the hands till they feel dry; a ladleful of the syrup mixed with starch is next poured in, and the seeds again rubbed and stirred till they are dry. This process is repeated until the comfits have undergone the first operation. They are then set in a stove to dry. Next day the operation is repeated, the quantity of starch being varied and the syrup made stronger; and so on every day till the comfits are of the requisite size.
… Good sugar-plums take five or six days in making. … Comfits are made with caraway seeds, cardamums, bleached almonds, and a variety of other things.
According to Laura Mason in The Prehistory of Sweets, prior to the invention of labor saving machinery the techniques for making comfits were closely guarded and few had the expertise to make them. So comfits or sugar plums were a luxury good, most likely to be found in an aristocrats pocket or between courses at a very decadent royal banquet. Isn’t it nice to think that jelly beans and M&Ms, our contemporary version of panned candies, have such a noble ancestry?
Related post: Candy Confetti
Confetti? Isn’t that the sparkly paper we throw around at weddings and birthdays?
Turns out this strange connection between almonds with colorful sugar shells and shredded paper is no coincidence.
“Comfits” is the general name given in English for the class of sweets made by panning sugar. Before machine made candies like M&Ms and jelly beans in the 20th century, comfits were a luxury item because sugar was expensive, and because the process for building up the sugar coating was laborious. A comfit would be a hard sugar shell that you could suck on, and usually at the center would be a small anise seed, grain of cinnamon, ginger, or any kind of seed or nut. Today’s jaw breakers are basically comfits built up on a grain of sugar rather than a seed.
In Europe in the 16th and 17th century, comfits became associated with parties, festivities, and banquets. If you were in the upper classes who could afford such goods, you would surely have sugared nuts or seeds at your celebrations.
In Italy, those nut comfits were called by a name that sounds a lot like comfit: confetti. If you listen, you can hear it’s really the same word. The famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described one Italian banquet he witnessed in the 18th century:
Now and then a masked fair lady mischievously flings some sugar-coated almonds at her passing friend to attract his attention… But the real sugared confetti is expensive, so a cheaper substitute must be provided for this kind of petty warfare, and there are traders who specialize in plaster bonbons…
Throwing around confetti–those sugar coated almonds or their fake plaster substitutes–evolved into our own festive practice of throwing around paper confetti. Although, since paper is not so tasty at the meal, we tend to throw paper confetti at non-meal festivities.
But we still do have one edible relic of the candy comfit associated with celebrations. What are those little colored candy sprinkles we put on cakes, especially children’s birthday cakes? There usually called “sprinkles,” (the long ones are “Jimmies” and the balls “non-pareils”), but they are obviously nothing other than candy confetti!