Early Modern Cooking with Bellee and Michael

Hello everyone, this is Michael (you may have heard of me, I put the Michael in belleeandmichael.com) blogging to you on this blog for the very first time.  Today I’m writing a post to our personal site that will be paired with an entry Bellee is writing for her professional blog.  We both thought it would be fun for us to write separate blog posts about the same thing because we enjoy redundancy.

I’m blogging to you about our attempt at making “jumbles” or early modern cookies.

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The finished product!

As you likely know, Bellee studies “early modern English literature.” If you, like me, are not an academic, it may be helpful for me to fill you in on what we mean when we say ‘early modern.’  The early modern period occurred…. a long time ago.  I believe sometime after the dinosaurs went extinct but before I was born.  People during this time period were in many ways like people from other time periods.  During the early modern period several individuals wrote plays, poems, and apparently they also wrote some cookbooks.  This is my segue back to the jumbles.

Bellee and I have tried early modern recipes before.  In our house I do the bulk of the cooking and Bellee does the learning and the knowing about things.  So, with our powers combined, we decided to try our hands at adapting some early modern recipes.  Initially Bellee selected a recipe for puff pastry.  I immediately had doubts about this selection because I’ve heard puff pastry is a real pain to make.  If you don’t know, puff pastry is made up of about a million layers of dough sandwiched one by one between another million layers of butter and the method for putting it together involves stacking, rolling, folding, and repeating until your arms fall off. Practically no one scratch makes puff pastry these days because you can buy a box of that stuff frozen for about $5 and it’s consistently amazing.  I like to be adventurous in the kitchen and I think lots of people get intimidated by recipes that have a lot of steps when usually the recipes aren’t actually that difficult.  That said, there’s a better than even chance that even if I were supplied with tons of time, access to a professional kitchen, the very best ingredients, advice from a pastry chef, AND a detailed modern recipe, that I would still fail to make an edible batch of puff pastry.

We were faced with the prospect of making puff pastry without any of those things on my list and I believe that brought our chances of success down to, oh, approximately zero.  Our biggest barrier to success was honestly the recipe we were going to try to work from   As I recall, the early modern recipe Bellee had picked for puff pastry had about four instructions in total. The first step was “make a perfect paste” which it followed by immediately moving on to the next step without offering any additional information about how to actually perfect that paste.  In my limited experience, the biggest issue with cooking from an early modern recipe is the lack of detail.  The recipes I’ve seen were clearly written by professional cooks for other professional cooks of the same era and area.  These authors didn’t waste time explaining how to actually perform most of the steps assuming their intended reader would get bored if provided with too much extraneous detail.  The task of writing a recipe in the early modern period was no doubt further complicated by the lack of standard ingredients.  Flour from my mill might be finer then flour from your mill.  The wooly mammoth tusk I use to whip cream might be larger or smaller than yours.  How big is a ‘large’ dodo egg anyway?  The cooks who used these recipes must have really known their trade – they would have had to know by eye, feel, and taste if their paste was perfect enough to move to step two.

Because we’re amateurs using modern ingredients and a tiny oven that cooks so hot that I regularly set the dial to half the desired temperature, we settled on some simple recipes that use relatively normal ingredients.  We threw together some “snow” (basically cream whipped with egg whites) which we served with spiced shortbread and strawberries marinated in red wine.

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Our first attempt at early modern cooking was a success! This gives us confidence going into our jumbles adventure today.

We selected a recipe for jumbles because we knew we wanted to make a dessert and because the name is fun to say.  There are plenty of savory early modern recipes to choose from but lots of them require you to have access to an open fire rotisserie and/or to be willing to beat a rooster to death.  Earlier I said that jumbles are cookies but if I’m being honest we didn’t know that until we had actually made them.  We knew jumbles were dessert though because the first step of our recipe for “finer jumbles” involves an entire pound of sugar.  I could summarize the recipe, but it’s already so short I’m not sure there’s any point in that.  So, here’s the recipe.

 “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.”

This recipe gives us some specifics – a pound is a pound – but it also gives us some mysteries.  Just how much butter is “half a dish”?  We got some expert advice from an old friend of Bellee’s and started with half a cup of soft butter.  Then there’s the “fine wheat flour” – I tend to think of wheat flour as the stuff you’d throw into dough for “wheat” bread.  We decided that if the early moderns had access to refined white flour, they probably would have used it.  We also chose ultra-fine granulated sugar and we ground our blanched almonds in the food processor instead of beating them by hand.  We decided to start with two tablespoons of cream and one tablespoon of rose water.  We mixed the ingredients by hand mashing it all into a dough.  Ultimately we decided what we had was too crumbly to roll out so we added two more tablespoons of butter and another tablespoon of cream.  The resulting dough was very much like sugar cookie dough if your sugar cookies smell like roses.

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The recipe only instructs us to roll the dough forth “as you please.”  I decided that it would please me to start by rolling the dough about a 1/4″ thick and to cut it into rounds using the lid of a mason jar.  We set our oven to 125 degrees which we hoped would bring our oven to around 325 actual degrees.  We baked the rounds on parchment paper for about 15 minutes and then cooled them on a rack.  The resulting jumbles were very chewy, almost doughy in the middles, and far too thick.  We decided it would please us more to roll the next batch of dough as thin as we could and to cut them with a shot glass into much smaller 1″ rounds.  We played around with the times and temperatures but preferred the thin crispness of these jumbles.

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Up to this point we’d largely ignored the recipe’s optional anise seeds.  I ground up a star anise and we sprinkled a little over some of the jumbles prior to baking.  The anise seeds were a nice touch of licorice flavor.  Ultimately we are very pleased by these jumbles.  I have no idea if our jumbles would be recognizable to an early modern person.  Even if they wouldn’t call them jumbles, I’m sure an early modern person would find them refreshing as a snack after a busy morning of cave painting.  If nothing else, we enjoyed making these jumbles and I’ve enjoyed sharing the experience with you.

 

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One thought on “Early Modern Cooking with Bellee and Michael

  1. Brenda Kerwin says:

    Dear Michael….what fun, love the blog!! I think you’re on the right track. The OED gives this explanation. Love you both! Brenda

    jumbal | jumble, n.
    View as: Outline |Full entryQuotations:
    Pronunciation: /ˈdʒʌmb(ə)l/
    Forms: Also 16–17 jumball.
    Etymology: perhaps originally the same as gimbal n. 1, gimmal n. 1.

    A kind of fine sweet cake or biscuit, formerly often made up in the form of rings or rolls; now in U.S. ‘a thin crisp cake, composed of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs, flavored with lemon-peel or sweet almonds’ ( Cent. Dict.).

    1615 G. Markham Eng. House-wife (1660) ii. ii. 97 To make the best Jumbals, take the whites of three Eggs..a little milke and a pound of fine wheat flowre and suger together finely sifted, and a few Anniseeds..make them in what forms you please, and bake them in a soft oven upon white papers.

    1888 Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (rev. ed.) xl. 1125 California Jumbles… sugar,..butter,..flour,..grated lemon-peel..whites of 4 eggs.

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