Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jumbles, or Adventures in Baking

I do not consider myself any sort of culinary artist. As a child I somehow skipped the mind-meld that allowed me to learn the collective cooking knowledge possessed by my mother, and her mother, and her mother's mother. I also never took a class about cooking in school - we had our choice of classes in Family and Consumer Sciences, and unsurprisingly, I chose Clothing Technology.

So, I'm a bit of a remedial at cooking. Living history has taught me how to experiment in cooking - you have to take recipes that are often cryptic, which use different ingredients than we do, with different techniques. Cooking and food science changed in the 1880s with Fanny Farmer and the advent of home economics, so to cook like a woman from the 1860s, you have to rethink everything you know about cooking. Since I don't know much except what I've learned from experience, this is actually an advantage for me!

I have a few standard recipes that I can do - orange cake, shortbread, some quick breads, and a really simple potato salad recipe from Mrs. Beeton. I try to conquer a new recipe every now and then, and for an event next weekend, I decided I wanted to make jumbles.

Jumbles are a period cookie. There are some, according to my brief Google search, who believe that jumbles may be the first cookie to make it to America, perhaps even to Jamestown. According to our friend Wikipedia they originated in the Middle East or the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages as a treat that kept well and could be taken on the road by travelers. They are easy to make, don't require too many ingredients, and thus are relatively inexpensive.

So, I set out to try them. I searched Google Books for recipes. I found recipes in The Virginia Housewife (1831), Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery (1860), and more. Pretty much every big-name recipe book of the 19th century has some variation on them. I decided to go with the recipes in Elizabeth Lea's Domestic Cookery (1859), because she gives very clear directions and has several different recipes. I went with the "Common Jumbles", for which she has this to say:
"Take a pound of flour, half a pound of butter, and three-quarters of sugar, three eggs, a little nutmeg, and rose brandy. Mix the butter and sugar together, and add the flour and eggs; mold them in rings, and bake them slowly."
 So that's it. Pretty straightforward, for a period recipe - so many early recipes rely on comparisons, such as "a piece of butter the size of an egg", relying on the cook's knowledge and experience. I pulled out my scale and measured out the ingredients. I threw in some seasonings based on what I knew would probably make a good taste - in this case, cinnamon and nutmeg. I added the cinnamon because I did not have any rose brandy (another adventure for another day) and other jumble recipes in the book called for cinnamon and nutmeg. So like a good housewife, I made do with what I had.

Dry ingredients on the left, wet ingredients on the right

I chose to use three eggs - there are some who say that period chicken eggs were smaller than the eggs we have today, but instead of cutting out some of the egg I decided to chance it and add more flour if need be. Surprisingly, the dough turned out pretty well - maybe a little sticky, but no real need for more flour. I took a tablespoon of the dough, rolled it into a ball, and then rolled that ball into a long strand of dough on the counter. After that, I looped them around and pinched the ends to make a ring.

Rolling it out...

...forming a ring. Other fancier twists could be used.

The "cook slowly" direction needed translating. In period cooking, you are directed (if the author is feeling generous about giving directions) to cook in a "quick oven", a "slow oven", or a "moderate oven". These refer to the temperature of the oven - a quick oven is hot and cooks more quickly, a slow oven is not as hot and cooks slowly. I decided to try the first sheet of cookies at 350. I would think of 350 as more of a moderate oven, but surprisingly, in 15 minutes the cookies were quite done. They smelled delicious, and a taste test proved it. These may be some of my favorite cookies. They come out of the oven soft and fluffy, with a little crunch to them; as they cool, they get very crunchy and hard - definitely a cookie that would stay good for a long time. Cooking them a little less would make a softer cookie, naturally.

Before baking
After baking! They don't get very dark on top - you basically have to trust your nose.

So here is my translated recipe, for you! (Also for me so that I don't forget it next time.) I use a scale for measuring out ingredients, so if you're used to the cup measurements, you'll have to do your own translating (a pound of flour usually equals about 3 1/2 or 4 cups).

Betsy's Jumbles

1 lb flour (I used unbleached)
2 sticks butter, softened
3/4 lb sugar (I used plain white sugar)
3 eggs
1 tsp cinnamon
Heaping 1/2 tsp nutmeg, or to taste (I really like nutmeg, but others may like less of it)

Cream butter and sugar together, add eggs. Mix in flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pinch off dough by the tablespoon, form into balls, then roll into long strands and form into rings by pinching the ends. Put the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 350 for 14 to 16 minutes; watch closely in the last few minutes to prevent burning.

(A brief note: After I posted a picture of the jumbles on Facebook, there was a hue and cry for information, so I was spurred on to write this up real quick-like and post it. Just goes to show you - I love knowing that people out there are reading this and want more. It's very touching! Hope you all stick around and comment!)


Anonymous said...

Lovely! Thanks so much! This is going to please several of my kiddos.

Bascha Theresa said...

I will have to try this...I think we're doing a reenactment next week so that should work out just right :). I'm also getting together with a few friends for a Civil War era picnic Nov. 1, so maybe I'll make them then as well :) Thank you for sharing! You have a humorous way of teaching :D I rather like it :)

Betsy said...

Thanks Theresa! I hope you had a chance to try them - and if you haven't, you should! They're super easy and a real crowd-pleaser. Thanks for your kind comments, I'm glad you stopped by!