“The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” So goes the line from A Visit from Saint Nicholas, possibly the best-known poem in the world.
While there is such a fruit, the sugar plum referred to here, and in the iconic ballet The Nutcracker, is actually a candy. It’s an old English candy ball coated in sugar.
And, as Houston Ballet is into its mega-run of The Nutcracker (which runs through Dec. 26 at the Wortham Theater Center), I started to wonder two things: Just how the heck do you make a sugar plum (the candy, not the fruit), and what do dancers eat to fuel them through all those performances?
I mean, wouldn’t it be cannibalistic for the Sugar Plum Fairy to eat sugar plums?
“I did 32 shows last year,” says 22-year-old Houston Ballet corps de ballet member Jordan Reed of the annual The Nutcracker run. “When I’m in intense performance mode I need more protein, I’ll eat fish and a lot of plant-based protein: nuts, flaxseed, Greek yogurt, fruits and veggies.”
And she pretty much eats throughout the day to keep her strength up, particularly if she’s doing two shows a day.
“I might have a big meal after an evening performance but it can’t be too heavy or I can’t sleep,” Reed says.
Man, all that healthy food, no wonder those ballerinas are so lithe. I mean, I like to eat healthy, too. But doesn’t it get boring after a while?
“People think we don’t eat pizza,” Reed admits. “But we do! I’m a huge Pink’s Pizza fan. Goat cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms. I’ll keep it in the fridge as a go-to snack.”
OK, now we’re talking.
But what about sweets? Dancers never splurge on sweets, right?
Turns out Reed is a closet baker of sweet treats. She even has her own blog called Craft-erina: Ballerina by day, Craftser by night. She’s been on a recent pie-inspired jag and her pumpkin pie macaroons on her blog look delicious.
“I have a huge sweet tooth,” she says. “And I love to bake. I always make treats for the girls to keep in our dressing room. But you can’t eat too many. You don’t want a sugar crash during the show.”
You’ll find a lot of recipes on her blog. (And yes, it’s OK to hate her a little. Come on, a baker with a bod like that?) But there’s no sugar plum recipe on the blog. Possibly because — as I found out — there’s no baking in making the plum.
Turns out sugar plum candies are impossibly easy to make. Really.
It only took only 20 minutes to whip up a batch. Of course, I had help from Hyatt Regency Houston’s pastry chef Regina “Gina” Martinez.
Martinez, again, is a tiny little thing. (What’s up with that? Should I be on a dessert diet?)) She’s spent half her life at the Hyatt, starting as an apprentice and working her way up to head pastry queen. She kindly researched recipes for sugar plums and allowed me in her kitchen to demonstrate.
“It’s kind of messy,” she said, handing me some surgical gloves. “But it’s so easy. You can’t mess it up. You can put whatever you have in the kitchen in the recipe and there’s no baking. You just let them sit in the fridge for at least an hour to harden and then they’re ready,”
She mixed dried fruit, nuts, spices and honey into a large bowl. Then we dug in and rolled little balls of goodness that we covered in powdered sugar. And that was it. The illusive sugar plum was done. Pop them in the fridge for at least an hour, let them come to room temperature before serving and dazzle your friends and family with a sweet treat.
“When they’re ready you can coat them with chocolate if you want,” she added. “But it’s a simple recipe. And healthy. Honey is good for you and almonds keep you regular.”
Now that’s my kind of recipe.
Regina Martinez’ Sugar Plums
2 cups of whole almonds
1/2 cup of honey
2 tsp. of grated orange zest
1 1/2 tsp. of ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. of ground allspice
1/2 tsp. of freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup of finely chopped dried apricots
1 cup of finely chopped pitted dates
1 cup of confectioner’s sugar
Toast almonds in the oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool, then finely chop. Combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg in a mixing bowl. Add almonds, apricots and dates. Mix well.
Pinch off teaspoon-size pieces and roll into balls. Roll bowls in sugar, place on sheets of waxed paper and chill. They’re best after several days but will keep for up to one month in an air tight container in the fridge.