Cherished Family Recipes: Oh, the Joy and Bewilderment

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chocolate jumbles

Family recipes are a funny thing. They straddle a fine line between fond memory, mystery, comfort, and tradition. You grow up enjoying them as a kid but usually not actually preparing them. And then you get to a certain point in adulthood and you yearn to duplicate those family recipes on your own. In my experience, that's when relative disaster strikes. Take, for example, my mom's Million Dollar Spaghetti. Growing up, we had this probably once a week and as a teenager I requested it more frequently. I remember when I got my first apartment in my senior year of college and I asked my mom for the recipe. I was shocked to learn that it was basically an excuse to eat one pound of cream cheese, a cup of heavy cream and a bunch of pasta all in one sitting. Then there was my mom's Raspberry Fool which I have fond memories of in the late spring and early summer. We'd have late dinners outdoors and she would make individual glass cups of these and stick them in the fridge so you could sneak into the kitchen and grab yours whenever the time felt right. About five years ago, I learned it was essentially all heavy cream. Utter deliciousness, but not the light summery creation I'd always thought it was.

Laying out Ingredients

But health concerns aside, family recipes can be questionable in other ways, too. Take Chocolate Jumbles. When I was growing up, around Christmas we'd receive a care package from Hilda--my grandmother's across-the-street neighbor in the tiny town of Ames, NY. I didn't care for the Chocolate Jumbles at first: they're a little on the warmly-spiced side for most kids, I think. But then I came to appreciate their subtle hint of cocoa and cloves, their holey center, and their super soft crumb. They're good with tea, perfect with coffee, kind of nice late at night when you can't sleep. I made them for the first time this past weekend and made them again and again. Because sometimes family recipes just befuddle you. You stare at the old index card and think, why? The instructions seem far too complex, a few of the ingredients seem unnecessary, or you simply can't make out the handwriting that's been smudged and stained after years and years of use. In the case that you bake for a living, you really stare at this particular recipe and think, why?!

Chocolate Jumbles


As I made them the first time, I tried to think about Hilda at her kitchen table pouring hot water into a shortening-based cookie dough and mixing. Out of all of the ways you could infuse a dough with liquid, this wouldn't be my first choice. So I decreased the amount of water, raised the quantity of spice and used part bread flour in lieu of solely all-purpose flour (this makes for a sturdier dough). The result reminds me of Hilda's jumbles although I'm still confused how she could possibly get from point A to point B using the recipe she gave us. Maybe there's something in that country air or maybe Hilda just has a much softer touch than I do. Regardless, you'll enjoy this adapted version. I'm sure of it. And at the end of the day after swimming in Chocolate Jumble dough, it doesn't really matter that you've become a little frustrated and disillusioned with yet another family recipe, does it? It's fleeting. You keep making those Chocolate Jumbles and reworking them until you get them just right because maybe -- just maybe-- you want to bathe in the memory, mystery, comfort, and tradition once more. If only for an afternoon, anyway.


Recipe: Hilda's Chocolate Jumbles

Summary: As I mentioned, I made some adaptations from the recipe as printed, so please don't be confused with the quantities listed in the photo above. Use the recipe below. Also use a good quality chocolate and have a cup of tea ready.

chocolate jumbles

Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 25-30 minutes
Yield: 24 cookies, depending on size of cutter you use


  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 eggs
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup bread flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. cloves
  • pinch nutmeg


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Using a standing mixer or hand beaters, cream shortening, eggs, sugars and molasses together on medium speed until just combined.
  3. In a separate medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and cloves.
  4. Add flour mixture to shortening mixture slowly, alternating with additions of the hot water.
  5. The dough will be very soft. Quickly form it into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to one dough.
  6. Even after refrigeration the dough will still be soft. Roll it out quickly under two pieces of parchment or plastic wrap for the best results. Use a 3" circle cookie cutter or your own favorite cookie cutter. Lay each round on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
  7. Bake for 8-10 minutes and allow to cool completely before removing from sheet.