Jumbles: Cookies that travelled across an ocean and through time

What’s in a name? When it comes to jumbles, a lot of history, that’s what.

Jambles, jumbals, jumbolls, jumbolds, jumballs, jambal, jemelloe, and gemmel – all appear in cookery books over the years and refer to a type of cookie.* The original name – ‘jumble’ – refers to the shape. ‘Jumble’ seems to be derived from Latin ‘gemel’ for twin, alluding no doubt to twisted strands of dough, and not to the modern meaning of jumble, a mess. And as is the case with so much food history, therein lies a tale.

According to an apocryphal story, around the year 600 A.D., a young Italian monk baked bread with flour and water during Lent. One day, he decided to form the bread into a shape that recalled the then-popular position of prayer: arms crossed over the chest. The shape was adopted for a large number of other confections, including Jumbles. Other possible jumble shapes included rings, figure-eights, and double rings, leading to yet another moniker for these cookies: knot biscuits.

Jambles, jumbals, jumbolls, jumbolds, jumballs, jambal, jemelloe, and gemmel..........refer to a type of cookie

So what exactly are Jumbles?

Jumbles are a kind of cookie that seems to have been popular in medieval England and later. Thomas Dawson provided a recipe as early as 1585 in The Good Huswifes Jewell, calling them Jombils, while Gervase Markham put forth two recipes in 1615 in The English Hus-Wife, one being as follows:

Take a pound of Sugar, beat it fine, then take as much fine wheat flower, and mix them together, then take two whites and one yelk of an Egg, half a quarter of a pound of blanched Almonds: then beat them very fine altogether, with half a dish of sweet Butter, and a good spoonful of Rose water, and so work it with a little Cream till it come to a very stiff paste, then roul them forth as you please: and hereto you shall also if you please, add a few dryed Anniseeds finely rubbed and strewed into the paste.

Not surprisingly, Jumbles ended up in America as a staple sweet, particularly in the South. Culinary historian Karen Hess commented on Jumbles in her annotations of Martha Washington’s manuscript cookbook, which dates to Elizabethan and Jacobean days. That cookbook contains a few recipes for Jumbles, as do others from that period, including those of Hannah Glasse and Eliza Smith.

Cookbooks by Glasse and Smith enjoyed great popularity in the American colonies. The Virginia Gazette carried weekly ads for Glasse’s work and a printer named William Parker published Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727) in Williamsburg in 1742. Smith’s was the first cookbook published in the American colonies in 1742, even though it did not reflect the culinary realities of the colonies, a hand to mouth existence

These recipes result in sweets with a somewhat dry texture, making it possible to store them for long periods without any ill effects. Cooks flavoured them with a number of different spices, depending on what the larder held. But rosewater seems to be a constant, in tune with their medieval and possible Arab origins – other standard additions included aniseed or caraway,  tastes commonly perfuming the Persian dainties brought to Europe via the Moorish rule of Spain.

Jumbles spices blog

Recipes for Jumbals resemble many other biscuits/cookies, such as Cracknells and Shrewsbury Cakes as described by Florence White in her book, Good Things in England (1932). Sarah Rutledge also mentioned Shrewsberry [sic] Cakes in The Carolina Housewife (1847), providing the cook with two recipes remarkably similar to Jumbles. By American standards, Jumbles are not very sweet at all, even though they could be considered a precursor to the delicate sugar cookies so popular in America.

Instructions for making Jumbles appeared quite regularly in Southern cookbooks throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Famous Old Receipts Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and the South, by J. Winston (1908), which featured five recipes with variations. John Martin Taylor included a recipe for Jumbles in Low-Country Cooking (1992), describing an early twentieth-century cookbook, Old Receipts from Old St. Johns, by Anne Sinkler Fishburne. Mrs. Fishburne’s daughter, Emily Whaley, explained to him just how these cookies fitted into her family’s daily menu: ‘Jumbles were sweet cookies which were always served after lunch’.

Today, a quick Google search reveals that most cookies going by the name ‘Jumbles’ tend to contain a ‘jumble’ of nuts and dried fruit. Cooks now shape Jumbles into circles or roll out the stiff dough to be cut into rounds or drop the dough by the teaspoon onto baking sheets.

I recently tried my hand at making so-called traditional Jumbles, and the best recipe hands down comes from a modern adaptation in Nancy Carter Crump’s Hearthside Cooking: Early American Southern Cuisine [University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2nd edition, 2008 (p. 212-213)]. Ms. Crump adapted this recipe from one published by Eliza Leslie in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweet-meats (1830).

Jumbles are a kind of cookie that seems to have been popular in medieval England

Aside from the fascinating history behind these cookies, they are absolutely perfect with tea. Or coffee. Or maybe even a glass or two of port whilst sitting in front of the fireplace.


Makes about 3 dozen

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon rose water
3 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Additional sugar for sprinkling on warm, baked cookies

Note for readers outside North America, a cup equates to about 250ml.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 C).  Sift flour with spices. Set aside. Cream butter and sugar until very light. Add egg and rose water, blending thoroughly, Add dry ingredients all at once to creamed mixture, blending well. Wrap dough and chill at least 2 hours. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out circles with a wine glass or cut into thin shapes and shape into rings. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned around edges. Remove to a rack, sprinkle with sugar, and cool.

Note: I made the Jumbles according to what may have been one of the original and traditional shapes, a pretzel. To make jumbles in the shape of pretzels, simply form balls of dough approximately the size of a ping-pong ball. Roll out to a pencil-wide strand of dough to around 13 inches long (about 33 cm long). Cross one end of the dough over the other end, with a bit of a tail extending past the cross point, twist the two around and fold the tails over the half circle. Sounds hard, but it’s not. Bake for about 10-12 minutes as noted above, but if cookies look too brown around the edges after 5-6 minutes, reduce the oven heat to 350.

*’Cookies’ in American English signify a kind of sweet known as ‘biscuit’ in British English. The name ‘cookie’ stems from the Dutch word, koekje.

Thanks are due to Nancy Carter Crump for permission to use the Jumbles recipe from her book.

Cynthia D. Bertelsen. Photographs courtesy of the author.

Italy in London

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1972)

I Camisa & Son in the 1970s

No big successful city is ever static, but London is currently in accelerated glittery metamorphosis.  Walk around the city and tiny mediaeval lanes have become fjords between shiny cliffs of glass and steel, their original inhabitants, printers, flower sellers, monks, have left no trace other than the name of the street.  The East End, grimy and poor for years with each wave of impoverished immigration pulling itself up by grinding hard work and education and moving out has now become an end in itself.  French silk weavers, Russian Jews, Bengalis, all began the journey to English betterment here, and little signs remain; but now rickety damp rooms, with the ghost of TB lurking in the air have become desirable places to be, scrubbed back to their original Georgian simplicity, creating a residential gentility for the first time in the history of the area.

Westwards through Fleet Street, named after a tributary of the Thames, which was where newspapers were printed.  All gone, leaving the odd masthead on the side of a building, all the news fit to print is now Goldman Sachs.  Holborn, still a grimy thoroughfare, festooned with gentlemens’ clubs to which no gentlemen would dream of belonging, and then Soho.  Forever a shady area of poorly built houses, it was traditionally the haunt of people on the edge of society, whether through nationality, income or activity, a favourite haunt of artists in the mid-twentieth century, rent was cheap, you could drink yourself into a stupor, imagining, in your gentle coma, that really you were as talented as Francis or Lucien.   Years pass, the liver discreetly decomposes and nothing really matters except the next drink.

Into this mid-20th century world came families from Europe, French, Spanish, Polish but predominantly Italian.  Sprouting all over the damp greyness of oily London streets like spring flowers. London’s Little Italy had been established in the nineteenth century in Clerkenwell, but this was something new.

No big successful city is ever static, but London is currently in accelerated glittery metamorphosis

In Soho, but almost nowhere else, such things as Italian pasta and Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salame, and occasionally Parma ham were to be had.  There too Italian rice, Tuscan haricot beans, chick peas and brown lentils were beginning to come back.  In the rest of the country such commodities were all but unobtainable.  With southern vegetables such as aubergines, red and green peppers, fennel, the tiny marrows, called by the French courgettes and in Italy zucchine, much the same situation prevailed …”

Elizabeth David: Italian Food (1954)

Imagine Britain, a nation to whom, largely, pasta was maccheroni cheese or spaghetti hoops on toast, confronted with all this?  Full steam ahead, you would think.  But as Mrs David notes, in her introduction to the 1963 edition of her book, the huge difference is that:

“…in London or Paris can be found the best of everything which England or France produces.  In Italy the best fish is actually to be eaten on the coast, the finest Parmesan cheese in Parma, the tenderest beef in Tuscany, where the cattle are raised.  So the tourist, having arrived in Italy via Naples and there mistakenly ordered a beef steak which turns out to be a rather shrivelled slice of veal, will thereafter avoid bistecca so that when he visits Florence he will miss that remarkable bistecca alla fiorentina, a vast steak grilled over a wood fire, which, tender and aromatic, is a dish worth going some way to eat.”

And so, armed with poor quality tinned tomatoes, horrid mince and some dried oregano, the ignorant armies marched forward, spaghetti alla bolognese, and of course pollo sopressa, that extraordinary cushion of tasteless pinky grey which, when punctured, issues a steaming jet of fat down your front.  Dishes which should be of extraordinary and subtle complexity became the staple of impoverished students, and the idea of focussing just on a piece of meat, or fish, or cheese was never entertained.  French food has jus, reduced and minutely adjusted, like a Formula One engine, and British food at the time had gravy, cornflour and caramel, gelatinous and anaesthetising.  All the basics for Italian cooking were available in the little shops in Old Compton Street but we had no clue what to do with them.

“In Soho, but almost nowhere else, such things as Italian pasta and Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salame, and occasionally Parma ham were to be had

But now, fast forward several decades.  Only two of the original food shops remain. To the detriment of any character, Soho is largely cleaned up, vice no longer dominated by chatty Maltese, but by taciturn Albanians, teeth, not hearts of gold.  Expiring leases mean rents have gone up beyond the reach of small family businesses.  Weary tourists, killing time before the Lloyd Webber matinee gawp at the gay bars and suburban flaneurs.  But, in between the grotty shops, something stirs.  Little Italian cafes and restaurants.  They don’t serve spaghetti alla carbonara, there is no groin grinding with the metre high pepper mill, no tenor warbling on the sound system.

The recession in Italy and the movement of labour in Europe has meant that there are now around 120,000 Italians in London, only a few thousand below the French population, who are so numerous as to make London the sixth French city in terms of population size.  With volume and with education comes confidence.  Clean-tiled, utterly urban, no hanging herbs or sausages,  serving bruschetta, deep fried anchovies wrapped in sage leaves, little polpettini, fritto misto with the proper batter, but, but …..


Massimo Faccincani

Massimo Faccincani has worked in London for 12 years.  A professional chef, he now works some of the time in Camisa & Son, one of the remaining original grocers.  He has observed the metamorphosis of Italian food in London as creator, merchant and consumer.  He comes from the Veneto.  It is so hard for us, I think, to separate fiction and reality with Italy, it is everything England is not, in both a good and a bad way.  If you meet someone born in Portsmouth, do they close their eyes when they describe their grandmother’s cooking?  When talking to an Italian,  does the memory inspire them to do this, or is it that they are too polite not to do what is expected of them?  Massimo closes his eyes and describes gnocchi di malga, (butter cheese and sage).  I feel myself falling down an abyss of pleasure.  How much would I have to eat in order to look like a young Sophia Loren or a less tense Anna Magnani.  If I ate a metric tonne would I suddenly become a buxom young matriarch, strong forearms pounding tipo OO while the sun blazed down outside and my extended family took part in a de Sica movie, without the misery.

Firstly, unlike French haute cuisine, the food we think of as Italian is generally cooked by women...

So, what about this Italian renaissance?  Hmm, Massimo is not signed up.  Firstly, unlike French haute cuisine, the food we think of as Italian is generally cooked by women, mothers, grandmothers.  They do it with pride and love (though surely even Italian mothers sometimes get fed up and long for a night off), it is generally unconnected to the changing times.  Food in London is, unfortunately, inextricably linked with fashion and consumerism.  Is it possible to imagine Corriere della Sera reporting on a Turin restaurant where the bill was €50,000 because four bankers ordered wines at €6000 a bottle? Of course you can spend that much on wine in Italy, and, doubtless some people do, but there is a sense that you are enjoying something truly precious, scents and flavours from heaven, not glugging it back just because you can.  And so, just as the City tends to favour Japanese cuisine, the West End tends to Italian, it’s rustic, if you don’t understand it you think it’s simple, it perfectly fits the zeitgeist of this city where there is so much money, so many possibilities, that we crave simplicity.  But England runs through our veins, we  don’t have the same connection to the earth, our families have been small and nuclear for decades, we don’t, in general, grow up being cooked for by someone who knows what she is doing.  It becomes food from the head, not the heart.  Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not like Italy.  As Massimo says, a superficial familiarity, a profound distance.

Is it a particularly Anglo-Saxon trait, this deference to food cultures other than our own, to try to re-create under our battleship skies food from another air, another language, under another sun?  And, of course, the elefante nella camera, more than with France, we focus on a tiny part of Italy, its food, its history, its fashion. Do we ever enquire about the fact that over 13% of the population is unemployed, and this rate is much higher among under 30s. Do we ever wonder about corruption and violence, Italy’s dark heart? Sometimes it seems that Italy is a victim of thoughtless racism, bring us your food, your fashion and your weather, but we’re not interested in anything else, it doesn’t fit with our image of your country. We love Godfather, yearn to be a guest at the wedding, we are much less inclined to look at Gomorrah.

Trying to squeeze into the skin of another culture is something the British have done for centuries – Shelley writing Hellas from a house in Pisa, going native in the Marabar Caves, watching the sun come up like thunder over China, eroding life with just one more pastis in Antibes, but slipping into the skin of another is particularly futile in the case of Italian food which, in general, was traditionally cooked in a domestic environment by women.

I can look up how to cook Escoffier’s Supreme de Volaille a la Jeanette (an extreme example, but an enjoyable one) or any other pillar of classic French gastronomy, it will be exact in it’s instructions, rigorous in it’s reductions, unforgiving in its unvarying list of ingredients and, eventually, weary and besmirched, I have made it, a pale imitation of what comes out of a well-equipped professional kitchen.  By contrast there is no definitive spaghetti bolognese, as there is no definitive grandmother from Bologna.  I have always used Anna del Conte, oil, butter, pancetta and beef, full-fat milk added at the end.  No no no.  Massimo’s has a soffrito of onion and carrot, with a little celery and the meat is equally  pork, veal and beef, and some luganaga sausage.  There is no nutmeg, but there is oregano, there is no milk but, as with del Conte, there is wine, but this is burned off.  Who is right?  Why does it matter to us so much? Let us stuff ourselves with bolognese, with ricotta, with all the irresistible fruits of the Boot, we remain prosaic, stolid and phlegmatic in our daily life, Italy is the stuff that dreams are made of and we have no desire to wake up.

A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell!’ 

‘Is it a very nice smell?’ said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt. 

‘One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,’ was the retort; ‘one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!” 

E M Forster:  A Room with a View (1908)

Penny Averill. Photographs courtesy of the author.

Mother Corn – Still the Staff of Life

Pig fodder? I don’t think so. Sometimes Europeans derisively refer to corn as food for pigs. English novelist Charles Dickens, quipped that eating hot cornbread was akin to eating a "kneaded pincushion".

Pig fodder? I don’t think so. I’ll wrestle a pig any time for the pleasures of corn.

For many Americans, particularly those who grew up on farms or whose parents, like mine, tended back-yard vegetable gardens, no summer food tastes better than sweet corn-on-the-cob. Lots of butter and grainy tongue-puckering salt. For me, corn-on-the cob spells S-U-M-M-E-R and I don’t apologise for it.

I’ll wrestle a pig any time for the pleasures of corn.

Corn (Zea mays ), golden gift from the New World to the Old. Cornmeal and corn-based dishes are major components of menus in the American South even to this day.

And when Thanksgiving rolls around, corn shines, cornbread dressing for turkey, corn pudding, hot corn relish, or succotash – corn and lima beans married together in a thick cream sauce.

Reverenced by Native Americans, who called it Mother Corn, this ancient grain, in the form of cornmeal, probably saved the lives of the first English colonists in the Americas. They called it ‘Injun’ corn. With the help of their Native American neighbours at Jamestown in Virginia, the colonists learned to grow corn and to prepare cornmeal porridge, fried mush, Indian pudding, and ‘journey cakes’ or ‘hoe cakes’. An early convenience food, hoe cakes, or rather flatbreads, lasted for long periods of time without spoilage. For lengthy arduous journeys across craggy mountains and roaring rivers, corn couldn’t be beat.


However, the most important cornmeal-based dish was hasty pudding, based on an old English culinary tradition. Poets like Joel Barlow touted its virtues, exclaiming in his 1796 poem, ‘In boiling water stir the yellow flour/The yellow flour bestrew’d and stirr’d with haste’. Concocted of nothing more than cornmeal, water, and salt, all boiled into a thick mush, that summed up was all there was to ‘hasty pudding’. The colonial housewife could leave the mush for hours in a huge cast-iron pot, hanging just so over the warm hearth, while she attended to her infant child or spun wool or made bread or hoed corn. Eaten for supper smothered with milk or maple syrup, mush made America. Families ate leftover mush for breakfast, sliced and fried in bacon grease and drowned in maple syrup.

So the polenta served in many upscale restaurants is nothing other than hasty pudding, or mush, dressed up with a fancy sauce and price tag to match. Modern cooks usually use cornmeal in cornbread, spoonbread, chilli (as a thickener), fish frying, polenta, and tortillas, as well as the occasional pot of hominy.

But corn is complicated. Behind its tremendous value as an easily grown food lies a dark story.

In planning nutritious meals based on cornmeal, it is important to remember that corn, like other grains, is more nutritious when combined with beans, milk, cheese, or meat. Called protein complementation, this concept guarantees that the protein in the cornmeal is enhanced by the proteins from the other foods.

And when it comes to corn, protein complementation is not the only issue: pellagra is a concern as well.

Corn 2

But corn is complicated. Behind its tremendous value as an easily grown food lies a dark story.

Pellagra existed because poverty drove people to eat the cheapest, and increasingly processed, foods possible: cornmeal, molasses, and fatback. Like many of their ancestors anywhere in the world, the pellagrins, as the sufferers were called, found themselves in early spring looking at thick scaly skin on their hands, the butterfly rash across their cheeks, and the oozing necklaces drooping down from their necks to their chests. Generally, these skin lesions appear where there’s been sun exposure.  A number of symptoms pop up, but most descriptions focus on the four Ds: diarrhoea, dermatitis, dementia, death. In many cases, people recuperated once fresh foods became available after long winters, making the disease a seasonal thing. But many people did not improve much, because poverty and debt precluded spending money on food, even on seeds or livestock.

In the Old World, corn was not treated to free bound niacin. People who depend on corn to provide the bulk of their diet will suffer from pellagra if they fail to include other foods rich in niacin alongside the corn. This is what happened in parts of southern Europe, particularly Italy, where peasants took to corn for a number of reasons, one being its ease in cultivation. But at the same time, they did not adopt the Native Americans’ nixtamalization process (in which the grain is soaked and cooked), believing instead that their advanced milling technology would grind the grain well enough to bypass the old process.

Pellagra is from the Italian meaning ‘sour skin’, first recorded in 1771 by Dr Francisco Frapolli of the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan.  A Spanish physician, Dr Gaspar Casal, of Oviedo in the Asturias region, described what the peasants called mal de la rosa. So prevalent was the malady that Francisco Goya included a pellagra sufferer in his painting, ‘The Miracle of St. Anthony’, seen in the dome of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid.

Corn meals-1

Yes, corn sustained the lives of many people in many places throughout the centuries, and still does. As you read this, some woman in Africa is pounding corn in a wooden mortar, the pestle thumping rhythmically, sweat pouring down the woman’s strong muscular back. For corn in some form is the staple food in many regions of the world, including Southeast Asia and parts of Africa – for example the ugali of Kenya.

In the American South, you see the importance of corn by walking through any grocery store, filled with shelves of various types of cornmeal, from fine grind to coarse grind.

And, so – when you bite into a delicious wedge of cornbread – remember Charles Dickens. Poor guy, he didn’t know what he was missing. “Kneaded pincushion” indeed.

Hoe Cakes

It’s questionable whether these were actually baked on a hoe, since in some cases a griddle was also called a ‘hoe’ in early America, because it resembled it in shape. But it makes for a good story!

Yield: Two 6-inch cakes (2 to 3 servings)
Time: About 1 hour, partially unattended

1 cup fine-ground white or yellow cornmeal
Scant ¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons peanut oil

  1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Put the cornmeal and salt in a large bowl, and whisk in 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the boiling water. Let rest about 10 minutes.
  2. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil. The mixture should be just pourable, but thick enough that you’ll need to use a spoon or spatula to help spread it out once it’s in the pan. If it seems too thick, add another tablespoon or two of hot water.
  3. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in an 8- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, spoon in about half of the cornmeal mixture, and, using a spatula or the back of a spoon, spread it into a round about 6 inches in diameter. Cook until the hoecake is golden around the edges and looks set throughout, about 10 minutes, then begin to loosen the edges with a spatula. When you’ve fully released the hoecake from the pan, gently flip it. Cook another 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining cornmeal mixture. Serve warm.


Cynthia D. Bertelsen. Photographs courtesy of the author.