It has been a busy few months, flying from photography assignments and meetings in London to Latvia for research, London again, then to New York, two days after to Milan, then London again, then Milan again a few days ago. I have been spreading myself too thin, so over the Easter weekend, my first weekend home since somewhere in februari, I barricaded myself onto the sofa between stacks of pillows and two sleepy cats.
We are talking Jumbles today and I don’t mean gibberish.
I was following ‘A History of Royal Food and Feasting’, a fun free online course from the University of reading and Historic Royal Palaces with a lot of interesting historical information about food. A lot of the information I already knew but I did manage to learn a few things, plus it was just great fun to do and force myself to take some rest while still being productive. One of the dishes that were recommended to try on the course were Jumbles, a biscuit I had been meaning to bake but haven’t had the time in my mad schedule. When the Learning and Engagement department got in touch to check if I wanted to get involved to spread the word about the course I of course said yes because I enjoyed it. So Jumbles it was!
Jumbles were knot shaped biscuits that first appeared in the wonderful book The good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson, dating to 1585. But legend places this biscuit right at the heart of The War of the Roses a century before Dawson’s recipe.
For those who are unfamiliar with English history The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles fought in the period of 1455 to 1485 between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, the House of York and the house of Lancaster – both sporting a rose in their heraldic emblem. Both made a claim for the throne of England. They were a result from the social and financial problems following the Hundred Years’ War. The Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor defeated the last king of the House of York, Richard III at Bosworth Field, near Market Bosworth, a market town in Leicestershire. He then married Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, to unite the two houses.
And it is precisely on this last battlefield that a new legend was born, at least a few centuries later…
The story goes that Richard III’s chef brought biscuits to the battlefield. These were even thought to be his speciality and the favourite of the king. After the battle when survivers were stealing valuables from the dead as was the custom, a recipe for these biscuits was found – because you should never go to war without at least one good biscuit recipe! The biscuits were promptly named Bosworth Jumbles. Or so the legend says since around the 1980’s.
To make Iombils a hundred.
Take twenty Egges and put them into a pot both the yolkes & the white, beat them wel, then take a pound of beaten suger and put to them, and stirre them wel together, then put to it a quarter of a peck of flower, and make a hard paste thereof, and then with Anniseede moulde it well, and make it in little rowles beeing long, and tye them in knots, and wet the ends in Rosewater, then put them into a pan of seething water, but euen in one waum, then take them out with a Skimmer and lay them in a cloth to drie, this being doon lay them in a tart panne, the bottome beeing oyled, then put them into a temperat Ouen for one howre, turning them often in the Ouen.
The good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson (London, 1585).
Although the word ‘jumble’ means ‘to make a hodgepodge out of things’ leading you to think it is called that way because of mixing a bunch ingredients, it is thought to come form the Latin ‘gemellus’ meaning ‘twins’ which might refer to the shape of the knot. It is a possibility since there is also a biscuit in Italy called ‘gemelli’ as in the Italian word for twins. In France there is the ‘gimblette’ a donut shaped biscuit which was hung from a rosemary branch on Palm Sunday in order to be blessed. Popular flavourings are candied peel and orange blossom water, sometimes also aniseed. The biscuits are first boiled, then baked, like the early English recipe also instructs. The Larousse gives as explanation for this bake: Petit gâteau en couronne, parfumé aux amandes. Spécialité d’Albi. No mention of the other flavourings. But I am not alarmed as The Larousse is often incomplete or wrong!
Another biscuit I find closely linked to the English Jumble, Italian gemelli and the French ‘gimblette’ is another Italian biscuit, this one from the island of Burano: the Buranelli or Bussolai Buranei. Often also called Essi when it is shaped in an S-shape instead of donut. Though theories on this site claim it was made for fishermen, I find it a little unbelievable since working class people would not have been able to afford the sugar. Traditional stories place the Buranelli or Bussolai Buranei around Eastertime, just like the French Gimblette. The island website of Burano tells the romantic tale that it was a tradition of Burano, a few days before Easter for the women to rent the ovens of the island’s bakeries to bake their bussolai for Easter. It is quite possible that this did indeed happen as it was a general custom all over Europe for people to go to their town or village bakery to have their bread, meat or beans cooked or baked. In Puglia and in Napoli they have a biscuit which is probably the most similar to the English Jumble: the Taralli. This biscuit, although always savoury is also first boiled then baked.
In the 16th century there was also the gimmell ring, again referring to the Latin word for twin ‘gemellus’ as mentioned earlier. The ring was made from two intersecting bands and if you hold them away from one and other they do kind of look like a pretzel or our old jumbles. My favourite 17th century poet Robert Herrick mentions the ring in one of his poems and he even calls it ‘a ring of jimmals’. I’ve always been intrigued by his words.
THOU sent’st to me a true love-knot, but I
Returned a ring of jimmals to imply
Thy love had one knot, mine a triple tie.
Works of Robert Herrick. vol I. Alfred Pollard, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891. 217.
I find another possible early link in Bartolomeo Sacchi – Platina – De honesta voluptate et valetudine, dated around 1465. There the author shares a recipe for a ‘pastry which they call canisiones’ which he says to form into rolls, and bake in a gentle oven just like the recipe for marzipan confections on the page before. Jumbles in England were also sometimes made not from flour, eggs and butter, but from a sugar and fruit paste, or almond meal, very much resembling the marzipan biscuits of Platina.
‘Apricock Jumballs’ from an 18th century recipe from ‘English Housewifery Exemplified’ written by Elizabeth Moxon is such a flourless jumble, consisting only from sugar and apricots cooked until they become a stiff paste like fruit cheese. These were then cut in strips and made into complex knot creations which you can see in some Dutch still life paintings.
In the 17th century they also appeared in books and recipes can be found in Hugh Plat’s The Arte of Preserving Conserving… of 1609 and in The English Huswife by Gervase Markham in 1615. By then the dough was no longer boiled before being baked. Flavourings still include the traditional and still popular aniseed and caraway seeds. Sometimes sugar was added, sometimes it was left out. Rosewater is still being used, even as an icing mixed with sugar and egg white. While Plat instructs to create knots and uses almond meal and grated biscuits, Markham says you can make them in whatever shape you want and uses wheat flour.
Jumbles were mostly popular in the 18th century where they were served with wine, just like Italian biscotti to dip in Vinsanto.
Later recipes use yeast, presumably to create a lighter bake, then yeast is replaced by baking powder. In the 20th century all shapes are a go and jumbles are even made into letters as instructed in the Reform Cookery Book‘ by Mrs. Mill in 1909. Recipes for jumbles today, like used on the Bake Off last year, are more crumbly and short textured.
I chose to give you the recipe which calls for poaching the biscuits like the earliest recipes stated because I tested the biscuits only baking them and the poached ones came out much nicer and covered in a pearly exterior as if they had been egg washed. The baked ones were just looking like a dry biscuit. They are dry though, don’t think like you’re going to experience a nice short texture, it is definitely more chewy and I assume these biscuits were made to keep relatively long. It is even possible they would have used them for decoration too. In any case I am keeping some to see how long they keep and as soon as I break my tooth on one.
What do you need
- 70 g raw cane sugar
- 1 tsp caraway or aniseed
- 2 eggs
- 1 tbsp full-fat milk
- A pinch of salt
- 200 g all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp rosewater
Use a mortar and pestle to crush the caraway or aniseeds, if your mortar is large enough, add the sugar and bash them together to get the flavour into the sugar.
Transfer seeds and sugar to a large bowl and mix in the eggs and milk.
Add the pinch of salt and the flour and work the mass into a stiff dough.
The dough is quite dry, yet still a little sticky, but that is what you need to roll it out succesfully.
Leave the dough to rest for an hour or so if you have the time, if not, proceed by rolling out the dough in 26 cm snakes for the knots.
Preheat your oven to 180°c and place a baking tray in it to get hot. Keep another baking tray aside and line it with kitchen paper or a tea towel.
Keep a fine pastry brush and 1 tsp of rosewater ready in a small bowl, I tend to use an eggcup for this. Make the knots like for pretzels or any other knot shape you desire. Use the rosewater to moisten the ends of the snakes to attach them to the knot, it might seem like they do not stick together but leave them for a few minutes while you do your other knots and you will see they are stuck together.
Bring a generous amount of water to a simmer in a large pot.
Have a spatula ready to immerse the knots into the water and poach them for 10 minutes.
Transfer the knots onto the baking tray you lined with the kitchen paper or tea towel and dry them gently.
Now line the hot baking tray with baking parchment and arrange the knots onto it. Bake them in the middle of the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the biscuits start to blush a little orange, they should not be baked golden brown.
Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool.
Ivan Day’s post here >
In which he mentions something interesting about these knot biscuits:
In The New World of English Words (London: 1678) Edward Phillips defines the name for this confection thus, ‘Jumbals, a sort of Sugared past, wreathed into knots’. These knotted delicacies were usually made with a kind of biscuit or marchpane dough and were baked. They probably emerged from the craze in the 1570s for knotted strap work.
The inventory of the culinary heritage of France: Midi-Pyrénées, Éditions Albin Michel, 1996