In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today.
In the eighteenth century and before, jumbles were a hard, dry, long-keeping, sweet, spiced biscuit. That doesn’t distinguish them, unfortunately: so was gingerbread, and so were a lot of other baked goods. Baking was a bit of an ordeal then, and since the ingredients — sugar, butter, eggs — were expensive, spoilage wasn’t to be risked. But jumbles actually took their name from their density, in a way: They were sometimes twisted into knots or pretzel shapes to make them easier to bite into, and the word jumble derives from the Arabic word for twin. (The modern sense of “all jumbled up” emerged more recently.)
Beyond that basic description, though, jumbles could look and taste like almost anything. Most often in the eighteenth century they were shaped into hoops, a simplification of the knot or pretzel, but they might also be solid. Some seem to have been baked harder than others. And though they were always spiced, the choice of flavors was up to the individual baker. Today, if somebody baked snickerdoodles with cardamom instead of cinnamon, they’d feel compelled to call them “cardamom snickerdoodles” (or perhaps cardamom-brown sugar snickerdoodles or even cinnamon-cardamom snickerdoodles); two hundred years ago people just made recipes their own and didn’t feel the need to invent new words for things all the time. And so any one cook’s jumbal might not closely resemble any other’s, but they both called them jumbals. This is why I like traditional foodways: if you want precision, go into engineering!
For no particular reason I started with a recipe I found in The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, a cookbook published in the 1930s from collected old and new recipes but designed to look as though it had been published in the eighteenth century. Very cute, but it gives some recipes from manuscript cookbooks that I wouldn’t have found otherwise, like these jumbles from the Morton Family of Charlotte County, Virginia, “prior to 1839”:
One Pound of Flour, one of Sugar, half Pound of Butter, three Eggs, a little Cinnamon. Mix first the Flour and Sugar and let them dry a little. Beat the Eggs, then mix the Butter and Eggs together — then mix them all and knead them well, roll the Dough small and long. Form them like a Hoop. Dip them in pounded Sugar, bake them on Paper.
Like all good manuscript recipes, this one is cryptic, but the lady left us some clues. Letting the flour and sugar “dry a little” suggests that the sugar was brown sugar, which would have been moist with molasses. The “pounded sugar” for rolling, though, was probably a hard cone of white sugar, pounded to powder. The kneading seems strange now, when every cookbook warns us strictly against kneading cookie and pastry doughs, but here it’s a way to build structure in what is essentially a hard biscuit, leavened only by the egg, and to work in enough flour to make the dough workable. Since there were no refrigerators in “prior to 1839” for chilling dough, the dough had to be fairly stiff to be rolled and shaped — but not too stiff, or you can’t (I discovered) join the ends of the pieces into hoops, nor will the sugar stick to them when you roll them. (The direction to bake the cookies on paper suggests that the dough was still moist.)
I’ve made these three times, with minor variations, and took them to gatherings where they disappeared quickly. I barely got to taste-test the second batch, in fact. I roll mine in cinnamon-sugar, which two hundred years ago would have been a waste of both cinnamon and sugar — what would you do with the leftovers? (Oh, for cinnamon toast and a time machine.) The adaptation below also adds rose water, which was common in other recipes. Rose water goes well with cinnamon, and it makes pretty much anything sound either more old-timey or more exotic. Either of which is, if you are trying to push some cookies, a good thing.
Of course, because it’s 2011, I can’t just call them “jumbles” and be done with it. I have to call them…
Recipe: Cinnamon-rose water jumbles
Depending on how much flour you add, this version makes either crunchy cookies that are good dunked in coffee or tea, or biscuity ones that are hard but not crisp. It makes about 30, depending on how thinly you roll the dough.
- 1/4 pound butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1–2 teaspoons rose water (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2¼ cups flour, or more (see below)
- 1/3 cup white sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, for rolling
- Cream the butter and sugar together, then beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the rose water, if you like. (One teaspoon is probably plenty, unless yours is very weak — too much will make the jumbles inedible.) Stir in the cinnamon and salt, then stir in as much of the flour as you can.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and work in the rest of the flour with your hands. If it’s too sticky to roll, work in more flour, a couple of tablespoons at a time. Don’t make the dough too dry, though, or the ends of your loop won’t stick together. If you can work the dough with only 2¼ cups of flour, the cookies will be hard and crunchy when they’re baked; if you work in another two to four tablespoons of flour, they’ll be more like hard biscuits. Both are good; it’s a matter of preference and of how fussy you want to get with tacky dough.
- With your fingers, roll fist-sized lumps of dough into snakes about ¾-inch thick. (Wetting your fingers very lightly may help — avoid using too much flour to roll them, or the dough won’t stick to itself.) Cut them into roughly 4-inch lengths and shape each into a loop, pressing the ends together lightly to join them. Dip the loops in the cinnamon sugar and lay them on lightly greased baking sheets. (They won’t rise in the oven, so they can be fairly close together.)
- Bake the jumbles at 350°F for about 12 minutes or until set and very lightly browned. Cool on racks. The flavors will be better balanced once the cookies cool.