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.
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 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.