‘To make Knotts or Gumballs: Take 12 Yolkes of Eggs, & 5 Whites, a pound of searced Sugar, half a pound of Butter washed in Rose Water, 3 quarters of an ounce of Mace fineley beaten, a little Sale dissolved in Rose Water, half an ounce of Caroway-seeds, Mingle all theise together with as much Flower as will worke it up in paste, & soe make in Knotts or Rings or What fashion you please. Bake them as Bisket-bread, put upon Pye-plates.’
In the 16th century, knotted biscuits, or ‘jumbles’, were originally biscuits made in the shape of a gimmell ring. Gimmell rings were often used as wedding rings, with intersecting bands that could be disconnected from one another to be worn during engagement, and would then be rejoined at the wedding ceremony. Early recipes from the 1500s use far less spices than their later counterparts, and also cook them in boiling water before baking them in an oven, rather like modern day pretzels. However, by the 17th century, the biscuits have become much more aromatic, with some recipes calling for both musk and ambergris to be used. The cooking method had also evolved, with the biscuits now being cooked only in the oven. Even without musk or ambergris, these biscuits would have been expensive to produce, with their high sugar content and varied spices, and would only have been seen on the tables of higher status households.
The original recipe (in italics above) comes from Arcana Fairfaxiana by Henry Fairfax, which you can find here. The recipe that I actually used is from an English Heritage publication by Peter Brears about food and cooking in the 17th century.
1 ½ oz (40g) butter
1 tbsp (15ml) rosewater
4 oz (100g) sugar
1 tsp (5ml) blade mace
1 tsp (5ml) aniseed (I left this out)
1 tsp (5ml) caraway seed
8 oz (225g) plain flour
First pre-heat your oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F or gas mark 4).
Next, you need to mix the butter with the rosewater, and if you use an electric mixer like I did, it will look like it has curdled, but if you mash it together with a fork it works much better. Be sure to use a big enough bowl to fit the rest of the ingredients too!
Cream the sugar with the butter and rosewater, at first it will look a little like breadcrumbs but keep going! Eventually it should all bind together, and become paler and creamier in colour. I used my electric mixer again, but it will work just as well mixing it by hand.
Next, whisk your eggs and add them to your mix. At this point, I was still successfully using my electric mixer.
Before you add the blade mace, it will need grinding into a powder. You can use a pestle and mortar or, if you have one, a spice or coffee grinder. If you are using a pestle and mortar, it could take about ten minutes, but it is worth it to get a fine powder so you don’t end up with big pieces of mace in your finished biscuits! Add your ground mace and whole caraway seeds to your mix.
The mixture should start to get little air bubbles in it after mixing, and will look a bit like pancake batter.
Now you need to work the flour into the mix to make a stiff dough. Whilst I started off using my electric mixer again, I soon found I had to resort to a spoon, as the mix became too sticky. I also found that I had to add a lot more flour than is stated in the recipe, and from my research into historic recipes, this seems to be a relatively common fault, possibly because exact measurements, especially for adding flour, are rarely found. In this recipe, it simply says to add ‘as much Flower as will worke it up in paste’ which can easily be misinterpreted. Below, the photo on the left shows the mixture with the suggested amount of flour, and on the right is what I ended up with after adding about 4 more tablespoons of flour. This resulted in a workable dough that I could use to make the knots.
Next comes the fun (and most photogenic) bit! Using well-floured hands (the mixture will stick to anything and everything it can), roll teaspoons of the mixture out on a floured surface into lengths. The recipe says about ¾ inch (5mm) thick, but I made some of mine a bit bigger with no problems.
Then you can knot, plait or make any other design you can think of out of your dough. Below are some examples, but you really can do whatever you want if you can make it without it falling apart!
Once your knots are made, place them on a baking tray lined with baking paper to stop them from sticking. You can place them fairly close together, as they hold their shape well whilst cooking and won’t spread out in the oven. I ended up with a mountainous three trays of biscuits!
They should take about 15 – 20 minutes to cook, each of my batches took 15 minutes, but different ovens will vary. When cooked, your biscuits should be golden in colour, and your kitchen will smell like a 17th century rose garden. Leave the biscuits to cool a little on the trays, and when possible, transfer them onto a cooling rack or plate.
Now you can devour your 17th century knot biscuits, and will have plenty to show off your successful historical baking skills to all your friends!
Bosse, A. 1638. Pastry Shop [engraving] Available from: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/390002 [last accessed 10.05.2015]
Brears, P. 1985a. Food & Cooking in 16th Century Britain: History & Recipes. English Heritage: London
Brears, P. 1985b. Food & Cooking in 17th Century Britain: History & Recipes. English Heritage: London
Turnspit & Table, 2015. All Jumbled Up [online] Available from: https://turnspitandtable.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/all-jumbled-up/ [last accessed 10.05.2015]
Weddel, G & Fairfax. 1890. Arcana Fairfaxiana Manuscripta: A manuscript volume of apothecaries’ lore and housewifery nearly three centuries old, used, and partly written by the Fairfax family. Mason, Swan & Morgan: Newcastle Uopon Tyne.