In 2016 The Great British Bake Off set its contestants a Tudor technical challenge: to bake a batch of Jumbles. These sweet little doughy knots were popular in the 16th century because they used basic kitchen ingredients and were lauded as being so easy that even the most cackhanded of cooks would struggle to mess them up. This was, obviously, too tempting a challenge to ignore.
Despite having a ready made recipe in the Bake Off’s version, I wanted to do a bit of hunting to see how accurate it was. Nothing against Bake Off, but history wasn’t made by bowing to the interpretations of national institutions with armies of qualified food historians and access to every library in Britain behind them. Good historians question everything put in front of them, hoping for the moment when they can triumphantly push their glasses further up their nose, wag their finger and whine, “er, actually, I think you’ll find…”
Anyway, we can all rest easy because thanks to my dedication I can confirm that Bake Off‘s version is fairly true to the original. This means that my breakthrough history discovery is yet to come, which I’m not annoyed about at all.
The 16th century was the first time that cookery books began to be published and collected in any sort of significant numbers. They were overwhelmingly owned by the aristocracy, however, because much of the population still couldn’t read and because many of the recipes used ingredients that would have been too expensive for ordinary people. Lots of the recipes in them were still about impressing guests with exotic flavours and showing off wealth, rather than filling hungry stomachs. It was not until 100 years later in 1664 that the poor could hope to compete with the rich by showing off meals made with a relatively new addition to England – the potato – with a treatise of their own by John Forster, concisely entitled *deep breath*: England’s Happiness Increased, or a sure and Easy Remedy Against all Succeeding Dear Years by a Plantation of the Roots called Potatoes: Whereby (with the Addition of Wheat flower) Excellent Good and Wholesome Bread may be Made Every 8 or 9 Months Together, for Half the Charge as Formerly; Also by the Planting of These Roots Ten Thousand Men in England and Wales Who Know Not How to Live, or What to Do to Get a Maintenance for their Families, may on one Acre of Ground make 30 Pounds per Annum. Invented and Published for the Good of the Poorer Sort. We can only imagine he was paid by the word.
The recipe I used for my Jumbles was taken from a popular 1596 work by Thomas Dawson called The Good Huswifes Jewell and would have been one of the books that became popular during this culinary boom. Dawson’s recipe used 20 eggs to make 100 Jumbles, and though I suspect my toddler would have happily worked her way through 100 of them, I wasn’t prepared to become a mother to a child that had become 50% dough.
First I mixed 400g of plain flour with 150g of caster sugar in a bowl and added 2 beaten eggs and 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds and kneaded it together. The dough was very dry, so I added 50ml of water, which helped bind it. I tipped it out onto a non stick sheet, which after this attempt I’m renaming ‘a total liar sheet’, and divided it into 12 sticky blobs.
While I waited for a saucepan of water to boil, I rolled the dough balls into sausages and tied them into knots, or jumbles. My first jumble attempt was actually pretty impressive! Maybe as promised, the recipe was genuinely inclusive of kitchen klutzes after all? A quick and confident twist of the next sausage told me: no.
I created 2 bespoke designs – the elegant ‘twist and loop’ and the ‘squashed turd’. In fairness, ‘squashed turd’ hadn’t started out that way, but after 5 attempts at threading the dough through a loop of itself I had to admit that that’s what it had become.
After the dough had been shaped I dropped each one, one at a time, into the saucepan of boiling water for about 5-10 seconds until they bobbed to the top. I then fished the molten, distorted shapes out with a spatula, because my slotted spoon was on holiday somewhere, and put them on a greased tray in the oven at 180 degrees, brushing each one with rose-water and a sprinkling of sugar before they went in.
After 20-25 minutes they were golden and smelled lovely with a fragrant spicy aroma. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, they had lost some of their shape in between being boiled and then baked. Some of the elegant twist and loops had lost their loops and some of the squashed turds just looked like little round buns, but they were still quite appetising! I tasted one of the blobbier looking ones and found that it was chewy like a bagel with just a hint of sweetness. The caraway seeds mixed with the rose water glaze to be quite fragrant without being overpowering. There was a definite non-modern feeling to these, despite them using modern ingredients. The Jumbles were quite heavy (one was filling enough), and though I had mine plain, I think they’d work well with some honey or salted butter hot from the oven. Definitely worth a go!