History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

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Malinda Russell’s Jumbles Recipe

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I will be visiting a fourth-grade class at the Washington Middle School for Girls to do a program about Malinda Russell.  I’m going to make one of Mrs. Russell’s jumbles recipes with the girls and, happily for you, folks, I’m going to share the recipe with you too.

First a little about the school.  The Washington Middle School for Girls is a tuition-free independent, Catholic school in Anacostia with a mission to serve girls at risk of leaving school prematurely.  The school got its start in 1995-96 when a number of women came together to address the educational needs of girls in Anacostia.  A decade later, the school was named one of the DC Area’s best small charities by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Now about the jumbles.  A jumble is a cookie or small cake.  John Ayto’s indispensable The Diner’s Dictionary explains that in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, these thin, crisp, shaped cookies were often made with rosewater, spices, orange zest, or other fragrant flavorings.  In the 1600s, cooks made the cookies in any shapes that caught their imagination, even baking them as in the shape of letters.  By the 1800s, however, the cookie was typically shaped as a ring.  The word jumble, Ayto tells us, may come from the word gimmal, or two-part ring.  Mrs. Rusell’s version (actually, this is just one of several jumbles recipes in her cookbook) has rosewater, mace, and caraway seeds.  It’s not too sweet and has delicious floral flavor and a nice crunch from caraway seeds.  Keep reading, folks, and the recipe is yours.

How did I choose this recipe to make with the kids?  It was partly based on what is feasible given the space we’ll be working in.  But, more important, Mrs. Russell, the first African American cookbook author, had her own pastry shop.  A cookie recipe reflects her area of expertise.  This cookie also has flavors that were typical in the 1800s, but are unusual today.  We’ll make the recipe together and I’ll tell Mrs. Russell’s story as a resolute free black woman in a society that put a lot of obstacles in her way.

Enough, already, you just want the recipe?  I hear you.

Mrs. Russell’s Recipe

 One lb. flour, 3-4 lb sugar, one half lb butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and carraway, to your taste.

 What did I do to adapt the recipe?  I added directions, using modern equipment, on how to make the cookies.  I cut the recipe in half (simply because I wanted a smaller yield).  And I reduced the amount of egg the recipe calls for.  Eggs today are typically bigger than they were in the 1800s, so this proportion may be closer to what Mrs. Russell’s customers ate.  I added baking powder to help the cookies last a couple days.  Otherwise, they really are only good the first day and after that they are leaden.  I added salt to help bring out flavor.  I also decided on quantities for the flavorings and seeds.  (You might try adding more mace.)  And, as you’ll see below, I played around with how to shape the cookies and offer suggestions for making them as balls (less historic, but I like them this way) or double-rings.  Finally, I added the glaze based on having seen it in other jumbles recipes.  Feel free, of course, to skip the glaze.  Or try it both ways and tell me what you think.  (Questioning my decision to adapt the recipe? The good folks at American Food Roots gave me a chance to address this issue.)

 Malinda Russell’s Jumbles, Adapted by Amanda Moniz

Preheat the oven to 375° on a convection oven or to 400° on a conventional oven.

Lightly grease two cookie sheets or line them with parchment paper.

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

1½ teaspoons mace

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 egg

2 tablespoons rosewater

1 tablespoon caraway seeds


For glaze:

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon rosewater


Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and mace.  Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer.

Add the egg and beat until incorporated.  Scrape down.

Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just about combined.

Add the rosewater and caraway seeds and mix on low speed just until everything is combined.

This dough is stiff enough to work with right away.  Or you can wrap it in plastic wrap to refrigerate for up to a couple days before using.  (To wrap it, place the dough on plastic wrap.  Flatten it into a disk.  Wrap fully.)

For balls:

Roll walnut-sized pieces of the dough into balls and place on the cookie sheet.  Press each cookie gently with two fingers.

For double-rings:

Roll pieces of the dough (a bit bigger than walnut-sized) into a snake about 10 inches long.  Bring the two ends towards each other so the snake now looks like a narrow U.  Twist the two strands together and form into a circle.  Press the ends together to close the circle.

Bake, rotating once about halfway through baking, until fragrant and golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.  (If you do balls and rings, just bake them on separate trays because each shape will take a slightly different amount of time to bake.)

While the jumbles are baking, combine the sugar and rosewater for the glaze.  (Most of the sugar won’t dissolve.)  Have ready a pastry brush.

As soon as you take the cookies out of the oven, brush on the glaze.  Let cool.  Enjoy!

N.B.  Rosewater can be found at some supermarkets, Middle Eastern groceries, and online.  (I trust I don’t need to tell you that you want the edible stuff, not the skin toner.)







Guilty Feelings about Tweaking Historic Recipes: A Piece in American Food Roots

Last week I wrote a piece on early African American cookbook authors in NPR’s Kitchen Window.  I included a recipe from each cookbook, and I mentioned that I had adapted the recipes for today’s kitchen.  Readers debated whether we today should change historic recipes.  I’ve been mulling that issue for the last few months, and I reflect on tweaking historic recipes this week in American Food Roots.


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A Piece for Black History Month in NPR’s Kitchen Window

This month is a busy month for me.  I am preparing for my classes at DC’s Hill Center.  I am also getting ready to visit the Washington Middle School for Girls  to do a historic cooking program with fourth-graders.  But don’t think all this means I haven’t had time to write.  I’m pleased to share my piece on early African-American cookbook authors, published in NPR’s Kitchen Window blog.  I hope you’ll agree their stories are moving and their recipes are great.