"The Children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads" Clement C. Moore - A Visit from St. NicholasHave you ever wondered what a "sugar plum" actually was, besides a very slender woman in a tutu dancing to Tchaikovsky.  Probably one of the most iconized and well known traditions of Christmas, but not actually ever found on dessert tables or plates for Santa Clause.  I always thought a sugar plum was one of those red and green gummies coated in sugar, but it was always something I was interested in looking into.  After a Google search and a few different websites later, I found more information then I really wanted to know.  Some websites claimed that a "sugar plum" was a rendition of what you see above, and others disenchanted the whole idea, stating that it was a term used to describe any small hard candy.   In either instance a "sugar plum" is something sweet and it had to be something good enough for children to be dreaming about.  I don't know if they looked anything like what I have made here, but I do know that these would be a treat I would dream about.  My children on the other hand, are probably dreaming about M&Ms and gummy bears, but can you blame them!   

Sugar Plums

14 oz of mixed dried fruit (I used pears, peaches, apples, prunes, dates, cranberries and apricots)
8 oz of raw nuts (I used almonds and walnuts - about a 1/2 cup of each)
1 Tablespoon fresh orange zest
1/4 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
1/4 cup of buckwheat honey (or Agave for vegans)

pinch of salt

Sugar Powder
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar (unrefined)
2 tablespoons homemade RAW coconut powder

    In a food processor or high speed blender pulse the mixed dried fruit and raw nuts until they are finely chopped (see picture above).   In a spice/coffee grinder place the whole cardamom seeds and process until it is almost a fine powder.  If you can't find whole cardamom seeds or don't have a spice/coffee grinder then just use 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom.  Place the fruit and nut mixture in a large bowl and add the ground cardamom, orange zest, buckwheat honey (or agave) and pinch of salt.  Use a rubber spatula to mix everything together until it is evenly combined.  Be prepared to get your hands a little sticky and roll out the mixture into 1/2-inch balls and place them on a tray or plate so they are not touching each other.
     After you roll out all the balls you could either let them sit out to dry overnight, or if you have no patience like me, roll them in the sugar powder now.  In the spice/coffee grinder (or small food processor), pulse the pure cane sugar and raw coconut flour (or finely shredded coconut) until it looks like a fine powder.  Roll each ball into the sugar powder and tap off the excess.  Store the finished sugar plums uncovered for a few nights, and then after that you can keep them in a sealed container.  If you dust them in the sugar powder early like I did, you might need to dust them a second time the next day, in which case you might need to make more sugar powder.  The flavor and texture of the sugar plums actually gets better as they sit for a day or two. 

Perhaps this is why children had to dream of sugar plums, because they had to watch their mother's making them, but couldn't eat them until the next day.
    These fragrant saffron buns are traditionally served on December 13th, in honor of St.Lucia Day.   This tradition is popular in Scandinavian countries including Sweden, which is where some of my ancestors hail from.  As a young woman I would dress in all white with a red sash around my waist, and a wreath of candles on my head.  I would wake up early on December 13th and serve these buns along with some milk or hot chocolate to my brother and sisters.  I looked forward to this small celebration every year, and these buns have become a nostalgic treat for me now that I am raising my own children.
    This year my oldest son became very interested when I started making them, and I figured it would be a fun task that he could help me with.  Making bread, though difficult, is actually great for kids to participate in.  My son helped mix the batter, kneed the dough, roll it out and place the little raisins in each of the swirls.  I can't help but hope that making these St. Lucia Buns with me will one day become a great memory that he will always look back on.
     I consider these a special treat that only comes once a year, so I didn't try to make them gluten-free or vegan.  Instead, I tried to make them a little more healthy by using white whole wheat flour and unrefined sugar.  Great served as a quick breakfast or even as dessert after dinner.  The smell of saffron buns baking in my oven will always be a warm reminder of my childhood, and now the promise of memories yet to be made.   

St. Lucia Saffron Buns

makes 12 saffron buns

1/3 cup of milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 water (heated to between 110-115° F)
1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup pure sugar cane (unrefined)
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron (or crushed-up saffron threads)
2 3/4 cups of white whole wheat flour (or regular all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon olive oil (or cooking oil)
egg wash - 1 egg whisked with a little water
48 raisins

    In a small saucepan over low heat, warm the milk and butter.  Once the butter is melted take it off the heat and set aside to cool.  In a large bowl put the warmed water and dry yeast and set the bowl aside for about 5 minutes or until the yeast is activated.  Check the milk and melted butter with a thermometer to make sure it is not above 115° F.  If the temperature is right, add it to the yeast along with the sugar, egg, salt, and saffron.  Whisk everything to combine.  Then, with a wooden spoon stir in 1 and 1/2 cups of the flour until smooth.  Add in the remaining flour a little at a time until you can form the dough into a ball (With the whole wheat flour I only used an additional 1/2 cup).  Place the dough on a floured surface and kneed the dough for about 5-10 minutes or until it is smooth and it springs back when you poke it.  Place the dough in a large bowl and coat it with the olive oil.  Place bowl in a warm place covered with a kitchen towel to rise for about 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

    Punch down the risen dough and cut it into 12 equal pieces.  Cut each of the 12 pieces in half (now 24 pieces of dough).  Roll out each half into a long rope (6-8 inches) and cross two ropes in the middle.  Coil each of the ends of the rope toward the center in a circular clockwise pattern as seen below.
    Shape the rest of the dough the same way and place them with plenty of space between each other, on parchment lined cookie sheets.  Cover the buns with a kitchen towel and set them aside in a warm place to rise again for about 30-45 minutes or until they double in size again.  Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Whisk together an egg with about 1 tablespoon of water.  Brush the egg wash over each of the buns and place a raisin in each of the four corner swirls, and push them in.  (A great task for a small helper).  Bake the buns for about 15-20 minutes or until they are golden and browned slightly on the bottom.  Move the buns to a plate or wire rack to cool.  Enjoy!
     I have been wanting to make baked oatmeal ever since I saw a recipe for one created by Heidi Swanson in her book Super Natural Every Day.  I have seen this recipe remade on more then a few blogs, and all of them seemed to stick with the same ingredients of bananas and blueberries.  Those ingredients did sound great, but what I really wanted was a gluten-free, vegan alternative that featured a different taste combination.  I wanted to make something that I could serve on Christmas morning so I started thinking about flavor combinations that are more seasonable.  I starting pondering ingredients like cranberries, pear and almond; all things that reminded me of the Christmas season. 

    The original recipe calls for milk, eggs and butter but if you are a vegan then those ingredients just won't work.  I decided to juice some of the pears (see how to juice pears below) and use homemade almond milk to replace the cow's milk.  I also substituted flaxseed meal for the eggs.  If you can't find the Coconut Secret products then you could use unrefined cane sugar to replace the crystals and use maple syrup to replace the nectar.  I really love the coconut products because they have a low glycemic index and are vegan.  The nectar tastes just like maple syrup, and the crystals are sort of like brown sugar.  
Forelle Pear Juice:   Wash 5-6 forelle pears and core them (keeping the skin on).  Place the pieces of pear through a juicer.  You will need to make 1 cup of juice (8 oz.) for this recipe so if you don't get enough juice increase the amount of pears you use.

    Forelle Pears are considered "specialty produce" because they are only found once a year here in the northeast corner of the United States of America.  They are available to us only in the winter, and they start to pop up around Christmas time.  I have normally seen them adorning tables, fruit bowls or gifted Christmas baskets, and I have always looked at these pears as more of a decoration then a food. My local grocery store had them in stock the other day and in the spirit of "trying new things" I decided to pick up a few and see how I could use them best.  Everything I read stated that they are not good for baking because of their small size.  I found this strange because never has size stopped me from using something yummy before. The suggested use for Forelles is just for snacking, but when I bit into one of these little gems I found a firm juicy sweetness, that to me seemed like a perfect fit for my juicer.  Pears are not well accepted by centrifugal juicers that normally destroy very soft fruit.  The Forelles held their own against the high speed whirling blades and transformed into a slightly thick and sugary sweet juice.  It was great to drink on it's own, but my mind had grander ideas to pursue with my new find. 

Forelle Pear & Cranberry Baked Oatmeal
(Vegan & Gluten-Free)

makes an 8-inch square pan

1 tablespoon coconut oil
2 forelle pears, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons coconut nectar by Coconut Secret
+ extra for drizzling

1 cup homemade almond milk (or unsweetened original almond milk)
1 cup of forelle pear juice (see the how-to above) (or Pear juice/nectar from the store)
1 tablespoon of flaxseed meal in 3 tablespoons of warm water (this is the egg replacement)

2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1/3 cup coconut crystals by Coconut Secret
1 teaspoon baking powder (aluminum and gluten-free)

2 cups gluten-free old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup fresh cranberries
1/2 cup almonds, toasted and chopped

    Preheat oven to 375° F.  Grease an 8-inch square pan with the coconut oil, making sure to cover the sides too.  Scatter the roughly chopped pears and a 1/4 a cup of the fresh cranberries into the pan.  In a small bowl mix the flaxseed meal in warm water and set aside until it becomes thick and gelatinous, about 10 minutes.  Then in a large bowl whisk together the coconut nectar, almond milk, pear juice, vanilla extract and almond extract.  Add the flaxseed "egg replacement" into the liquid and whisk to incorporate.  In another bowl toss together the coconut crystals, baking powder, rolled oats, and a 1/4 cup of the toasted and chopped almonds.  Pour the dry oat mixture over the fruit in the pan.  Slowly drizzle the liquid ingredients over the oats.  Sprinkle the 1/4 cup remaining fresh cranberries and remaining 1/4 cup of almonds on top of the whole thing.  Bake in preheated oven for 35-45 minutes or until it looks browned and set. Serve it warm out of the oven and drizzle some extra coconut nectar over the top.

* To toast almonds I normally just place them in an ungreased frying pan over medium high heat and toss them around until they are golden brown.  Just wait until they cool down before chopping and adding them to the recipe.  You could also toast them in a 400° F oven on a cookie sheet for 10 minutes, tossing them half way through cooking.