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Comfit Making: An Introduction

This is an online version of the handout I prepared for a class I taught at Canterbury Faire one year on making comfits.

Why make candy?

For me, as someone specialising in 16th century Italian cooking, it's important because it's such a crucial part of any menu. The meal would just not be complete without candy. Messisbugo includes candy as a key element in his how-to guide to throwing parties. Scappi, who has an entire book of menus he has cooked, will often round out a meal with the phrase "condite, & confettioni a beneplacito". More often, however, he'll present a list - often 15-20 items long - of the candies that were served, and what the volume of these was. Lancelotti's lists look shorter - but that's because he includes three or four items per line.

But candies weren't exclusive to Italian dining, nor to the 16th century. Due to the expensive ingredients involved, and the time-consuming process of making them, candy was always a luxury item - and therefore an appropriate addition to any high-end menu. Candy shows up in every culture and every region; it is an integral part of fine dining in the Renaissance.

We probably can't recreate the volume of candies presented at the end of an Italian feast - but we can certainly make and present some candy, which brings us that little step closer to more authentically recreating the dining practices of the elite.

Candy: Pros & Cons

  • It's easy to learn to do
  • It's a fantastic way to make your feast more authentic
  • It's time consuming
  • It can be hard to get hold of food grade gum arabic in the quantities needed for nuts and seeds

What was candied?

Chances are, if it's a fruit, vegetable, nut, seed or spice, someone somewhere tried serving it up as candy. Everything I've listed below appears on at least one Italian 16th century menu.

  • Nuts (pine nuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts could be preserved in different ways)
  • Seeds and spices (caraway, fennel, coriander, cardamom, anise, dill, cinnamon, melon)
  • Peel (lemon, orange, lime, and citron)
  • Whole small green oranges and lemons
  • Fruit (oranges, lemons, cherries, quinces, melons, pears, apples, peaches, plums)
  • Roots (ginger)
  • Vegetables (fennel bulbs, cucumber, lettuce, gourds, borage stalks, borage flowers, chicory, artichokes)

Candied Seeds

These were used to freshen the breath at the end of a meal, never mind that all that sugar might make your teeth fall out. Candied seeds and nuts made using the process below are often referred to as "confits". By the Italians they are termed as "confetti" or "confettioni", are often described as "white" and sometimes as "large", and are almost always "in good number/volume".

They are really easy to make, they just require patience:1 it will take you three to four hours to turn 50g of seeds into candy. Fortunately, this makes a much larger volume of candy than what you started with (three or four times as much). The process is to first cover the seeds with multiple layers of gum arabic (each layer is called a "charge"), and then to repeat the process with sugar syrup.

This type of candy making is very good as a form of meditation. Otherwise, I suggest you have a stash of dvds or audio books that can be set up so you can watch/listen while you make it.

Working with heat and sugar:

Safety and caution are really important with making candied seeds. You are dealing with putting your hand in a pile of stuff that includes boiling sugar syrup. Sugar is more than capable of burning through to the bone, very quickly. Treat the sugar with respect. This is NOT safe for children, unless they are at least nine or 10, really sensible, and have really close adult supervision.

Brief Summary:

  • Use a wok or frying pan with something underneath to hold it off the element
  • Mix two teaspoons gum arabic to three tablespoons of water (that's enough for about 25g of seeds); 3-8 charges necessary for good results
  • Preferably use icing sugar, probably in a proportion of 2 1/4 cups icing sugar to 1/2 cup water; 30-40 charges done over multiple days
  • Be prepared to play with sugar/water quantities
  • Less is more: use the least amount of gum arabic/sugar syrup per charge that you can get away with.


All you need is a wok and a wok stand, or a (preferably non-stick) frying pan and a smaller one (or a pot, or a baking tin) that you can turn upside down and use as a stand under it; and a pot to make the sugar syrup in. This is what I had been contemplating trying when I read Dame Alys Katherine's article on how to use this equipment to produce candy, it was very serendipitous to then come across her article.

The gum arabic:

The amount you need to mix with water will vary depending on the particular gum arabic that you are working with. Dame Alys Katherine works with one teaspoon of gum arabic to three tablespoons of water. I've tried this and it works, but two teaspoons of gum arabic to three tablespoons of water works much better for the gum arabic that I'm using. Mix it in really well and let it sit overnight before using.

The syrup:

Dame Alys Katherine suggests that getting the right syrup for smooth confits depends on getting the temperature of the syrup right. I've found that actually, more importantly, it needs to have the right proportion of liquid to it. Making the "right" syrup also appears to depend on where you're living, as the outcome appears to be affected by humidity. Plat used three pounds of sugar dissolved in a pint of water (a ratio of around two to one), Dame Alys Katherine uses two and a quarter cups of sugar to half a cup of water. This ratio seems to be right if you are using icing sugar. For normal white sugar, I use two cups of sugar to half a cup of water, a ratio of four to one. If your mixture has too much liquid, the seeds (and to an extent the nuts as well) will tend to clump together and be difficult to separate.

Which sugar?:

You can make the syrup with normal white sugar crystals. This makes a perfectly decent syrup, but tends to solidify quickly as it cools, crystallising unevenly. Plat specifies the use of powdered sugar, and this is in fact superior in terms of usability. Icing sugar stays liquid for longer and provides a slightly smoother finish (noticeable on almonds). You can also continue using it to successfully make smooth confits even once it is pretty much cold, but hasn't yet solidified. However, it also takes longer to set on each layer and seems to create thinner layers - so you'll probably need more of them. It's difficult to reuse a syrup once it's cooled and solidified, as you tend to end up with lumps through it - I've found that you're better off making small amounts at the time, and start afresh.

The process:

Add a small amount of the gum mixture or sugar syrup at the time. You're better off using the smallest amount you think you can get away with. I start with about a 1/2 tablespoon of mixture to 50g of seeds, and gradually build up. Keep the heat as low as you can manage it. You may need to turn the element on and off to manage this, or occasionally to remove the pan from the heat completely. You will need at least three charges of gum arabic to make the sugar syrup stick; I usually aim at 5-6 to be on the safe side. This takes about an hour. Leave the seeds to sit at least overnight once you've finished putting on the charges. If they start to clump together once you're done, heat them gently in the pan and work them well with your fingers to separate them before moving on to the sugar syrup. You will need to do about 30-40 charges of sugar syrup to get a good result. I usually do this in doses of ten charges per night, leaving the seeds to sit overnight (or for several days) to dry. It's really important to let them dry thoroughly, this makes whiter confits.

A note for those prone to OOS:

You will need to hold the pan while you are working. I find that if I am holding the pan incorrectly while I work, my OOS flares up. Rather than hold the pan by the handle, I find it better to hold the rim of the pan - this is also a good way to ensure that you're not heating the pan too much, since you won't be able to do this if it's too hot. Also make sure to alternate hands, and I wouldn't work for more than three hours a day.

Candied Nuts

The process for candying nuts is identical to the process for candied seeds. There are a few key points though that are worth noting.

  • You do not necessarily need more gum arabic solution for your nuts, just because they're bigger. If you're working only with a cup full of nuts at the time, in fact, the same quantity of gum arabic as you would use for 50g of seeds is probably sufficient (four teaspoons gum arabic to six tablespoons of water).
  • A cup of nuts is about what's comfortable to work with in the wok at any one time. Since they're larger, they grow faster - so you will probably end up dividing one cup of nuts into two or three groups as they grow.
  • The nuts are more noticeable if they start clumping together. Really take your time to work through them thoroughly to ensure that this isn't happening; if it's happening a lot, you probably need to halve the amount you're working with in the pan, and use less syrup. You can usually gently separate them with a thumb and finger if they have glued together, however, sometimes this will mean that the sugar coating breaks off from one of them.
  • I find that once the first ten charges are on the nuts, I get a better result if I only apply six charges at a time.

A Note on Storage:

Store your seeds and nuts in plastic ziplock/resealable bags, or in plastic containers that seal well. They go off when you store them in a glass jar. I believe you can also freeze them but I haven't tried this yet.

Other types of candy

Candied peel:

To make the best candied peel, the trick is to get as much of the pith off the peel as possible. This makes it a bit more tedious to prepare, but the result is worthwhile. I find soaking the peel for a few days is helpful in softening it, changing the water twice daily - several of the period recipes specify that you should do this, for up to nine days. This is also handy if you're eating an orange a day at lunch to build up a sufficient quantity of peel to be worth candying. When I make it without soaking, I end up cooking it for three to four times as long to get it to the same point. Nostradamus says that the peel is cooked when it can be pierced easily by a pin. He's right. It's also important to cook the syrup and pour it over the peel, then remove the syrup again at least once to recook it, as it will have absorbed some of the moisture remaining in the peel. Peel seems to have been served for the most part still in its sugar syrup, however, for ease of eating at a feast I have found it helpful to drain the syrup off and dust the pieces lightly in caster sugar.

Candied plums:

It's fairly well accepted that the term "sugar plum" was not used in the Renaissance, but is a later invention that may not even necessarily mean candied plums. However, plums certainly could be presented as a candy in the Renaissance. There are multiple methods for candying plums. I have trialled several of these and they come out with an identical result. The trick to making the best candied plums is, once they have been thoroughly preserved in a sugar syrup, to drop them briefly into boiling water then drain them. This turns the plum into something resembling a fruit jelly, and turns them from sweet and palatable into something heavenly.

Coating things with caster sugar to serve:

There is no point in doing this until the absolute last minute. You will want to drain your candies well first. Allow plenty of caster sugar to roll them in. Even once drained, the candies will start liquifying the sugar you have dusted them with. If you try and do this well ahead of time, all you have done is add extra sugar to them and made them that little bit stickier - you will need to repeat the process again before serving. Some candies were presented in this way - Scappi describes them in his menus as "asciutte", or "dried/wiped clean" - however, it was fairly common for candied fruits and peels in particular to be served with their syrup over them.


Note that throughout I have taken a teaspoon to be 5 grams/mls, and a tablespoon to be 15 grams/mls.

Bibliography/Useful Reading

Stefan's Florilegium has the most useful information I've been able to find online

Dame Alys Katherine, Historic Comfits Using Modern Equipment,

Dame Alys Katherine, The Candying Process,

Ivan Day, Sugar-Plums and Comfits on Historic Food -

Laura Mason, Sugar-plums and Sherbet The Prehistory of Sweets, (Prospect Books, Devon, 2004)

1 I also find sheer determination to be a good substitute.