Experiment: Pynnonade

Pynnonade (broth mix)
Pynnonade. Based on the fourteenth-century cookery book of Richard II (c. 1390). Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

Pynnonade. 

Tak almaundes yblaunched & drawe hem up sumdel thykke wiþ gode broth oþer with water & set on þe fyre & seeþ it, cast þerto ȝolkes of ayroun ydrawe, tak pynes fryed in oyle oþer in grece & do þerto white poudour douce, suger & salt, & colour it with alkenet a litull.

Pine nut custard.

Take blanched almonds and mix them up to a fairly thick consistency with good broth or water and set on the fire and simmer it; add to it strained egg yolks; take pine nuts, fried either in oil or fat, and add thereto white powder douce, sugar and salt, and colour it with a little alkanet.

[Forme of Cury (c.1390), edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2019.]

Pynnonade is a little mysterious.

At first sight, the fiftieth recipe in the fourteenth-century Forme of Cury — Richard II’s cookery book — might seem to have an identity crisis. With both the inclusion of sugar and salt, are we meant to interpret it as a sweet or a savoury dish? Or somewhere in between?

Moreover, the instructions appear to leave out some necessary details: how do you mix almonds with broth into a ‘thick consistency’; what do you do once you’ve spiced and seasoned the pine nuts; and just what is ‘white powder douce’?

Well, wherever there is mystery and confusion, I feel obliged to investigate and illuminate through research and experimentation. So, here’s what I’ve found out so far:

Context

Pynnonade has previously been identified by other scholars as a sweet dish. In their glossary for their edition of Middle English recipes (Curye on Inglysch), Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler lump together Pynnonade with other pine nut dishes, which they label as ‘sweet dishes’ [see note 1]; and, indeed, these are evidently sweet fare. Here are the other pine nut dishes mentioned, each (as with our Pynnonade) incorporating the Middle English word for ‘pine nut’, i.e. pine or pyne, in its name:

  • Pynade #1, which uses both honey and ‘a quantity of brown sugar’ to make a kind of spiced toffee; the mixture is boiled at length and then placed on a wet board to cool and set [see note 2];
  • Pynade #2, another dish using a ‘third part’ (a sizeable quantity) of sugar or honey to make a boiled confection using wine, pears and spices [see note 3];
  • and Pynite, a pastry filled with a spiced ginger toffee, made by boiling wine and sugar, and also incorporating honey [see note 4].

The problem is that Pynnonade is not remotely similar to any of these other pine nut dishes: it contains egg yolks which the others do not; there is no fruit or honey; and no boiling is involved, just simmering.

But the most significant difference lies in the quantities of sugar used. In the three recipes above, it is clear that sugar is a primary ingredient; whereas, in Pynnonade, sugar is listed along with salt and spices, added to enhance the fried pine nuts; it is not the basis for making a toffee mixture.

Pertinently, a ready-made confection known as pinionade (variously spelt), evidently some kind of sugar and pine nut combination, was imported into England from the Mediterranean during the late medieval period, arriving in boxes and pots. The spiced, salty-and-sweet fried pine nuts of our Pynnonade seem likely to be taking their inspiration from this luxurious treat [see note 5].

As titles for medieval English recipes quite frequently incorporate the name of a core ingredient, it seems fair to conclude that our Pynnonade is doing the same. Our dish is not this pinionade, but nevertheless a pine nut confection of sorts is its most distinctive component.

Sugar as spice

An earlier English collection of recipes, written in Anglo-Norman and dating to around 1320-40, sheds some light on the use of sugar in medieval cookery, and will help us further contextualise Pynnonade:

Spynete.

Let d’alemaundes, flurs d’aubespyne moillez en let d’alemaundes, e qu’il eit bon flaour des flurs; e de amydoun, char grosse, gyngivre triee, sucre pur abatre la force de le gyngyvre, blaunche flurs planté desus.

Hawthorn blossom pottage.

Almond milk, hawthorn flowers soaked in almond milk; perfume well with the flowers; wheat starch; beef, pork, or mutton; choice ginger, sugar to balance the ginger, white blossoms set on top.

[From Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones, ‘Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii’, Speculum 61.4 (1986), pp. 859-892, at pp. 867 and 878 (recipe 11); my own emphases.]

Using sugar as a spice, and not simply as a sweetener, is commonly alluded to throughout Forme of Cury and other medieval recipe books. The example above is perhaps the most explicit I’ve come across so far for explaining how sugar was used to balance other spices.

Once you realise that, when used judiciously, sugar works as a counterpoint to salt and can often enhance spices, then it seems eminently sensible to incorporate it into various dishes, even those that are, to all intents and purposes, savoury. A good reminder, then, to all those desiring to reconstruct medieval recipes, is that sugar doesn’t automatically mean ‘sweet dish’.

If I’ve not quite convinced you, or you think I’m stretching this out of context, let us just consider the recipe that immediately follows Pynnonade.

Rosee.

Tak þicke mylke as to fore wellid, cast þerto suger a gode porcioun, pynes, dates, yminced, canel & poudour gynger, & seeþ hit & alye it with floures of roses white & flour of rys, cole hit, salt it, & messe hyt forth, yf þou wolt in stede of almaund mylk, tak swete cremes of kyne.

Rose petal custard.

Take thick milk as directed above; add thereto a good quantity of sugar, pine nuts, minced dates, cinnamon and ginger powder, and simmer it and mix it with white rose petals and rice flour; cool it, salt it, and serve it forth; if you wish, instead of almond milk, use sweet cream of cows.

[Forme of Cury (c.1390), edited and translated by Christopher Monk © 2019. N.B. Thanks to Pam Powell for correcting me on the translation of ‘kyne’, which means, as she kindly pointed out to me, ‘cows’.]

The instruction, ‘Take thick milk as directed above’, clearly shows that both Pynnonade and Rosee follow a similar method, using thick almond milk as the base for their recipes. But there is a clear difference between the two.

Rosee is intended to be a sweet dish: there is no room for doubt, here, for the cook is told to use ‘a good quantity’, or portion, of sugar. However, this is not stipulated for Pynnonade. It seems quite reasonable, therefore, to conclude that Pynnonade was not intended as an overtly sweet dish.

Making custard?

The Rosee recipe also helps us identify what the base is for Pynnonade — what the dish is in essence — for it describes its almond and broth (or water) mixture as ‘thick milk’. In Rosee, rice flour is added to make it even thicker; in Pynnonade, however, the thickening is done by adding egg yolks. From a modern cook’s perspective, what is made in both recipes is a type of thick custard [see note 6]: the former sweet, the latter savoury — with a little sugar from the spiced pine nuts to enhance it.

At this point it is worth noting that almond milk is frequently used in Forme of Cury as a substitute for milk from cows. It was made by blending and steeping ground almonds with either fresh water or a broth of some kind (typically a poultry or a beef broth). Note that for its thicker almond milk, Rosee specifies as an alternative ‘sweet cream of cows’, that is, ‘sweet’ or delicate in flavour, not sweetened by sugar.

Clearly, it’s not possible to make an almond milk with whole blanched almonds, as Pynnonade seems to be suggesting. So, evidently, a step indicating that the almonds should be first ground before combining with the broth has been omitted by mistake. In fact, two later manuscript versions of Forme of Cury do actually include ‘grynde hem’ (‘grind them’) after the almonds are mentioned [see note 7].

The Pynnonade recipe also omits telling the cook to add the spiced pine nuts to the thickened almond milk, or custard. But perhaps that is self-evident; it certainly seems to be confirmed by the method for Rosee, where we read that all the dry ingredients are ‘cast thereto’.

White powder douce?

Now just one final puzzle: just what is white powder douce? Those of you familiar with medieval recipes will already have heard of the spice mix known as ‘powder douce’ (literally, ‘sweet powder’). I’ve already written a post explaining the likely spices that went into this blend: cinnamon, ginger, Indian bay leaves, and cloves; and also how ‘douce’/ ‘sweet’ doesn’t indicate that sugar was commonly part of the mix, but rather that the spices were designated as ‘sweet’, as opposed to ‘strong’, in contemporary Italian culinary tradition, from which English cuisine often borrowed.

None of these spices, however, is strictly white, though at least ginger is pale, especially in its dried form. It seems, then, a fair bet to say ginger may have been a component of ‘white powder douce’. Cloves, on the other hand, are markedly dark, and cinnamon is also far from white, so perhaps these two spices were not included in the blend. As for the Indian bay leaves, they are rather green when ground, so if we’re wanting to recreate this mix, should we also leave them out? But, if we do, that would leave us with just ginger, and a single spice does not make a spice mix!

Is there some mistake, then? Did the scribe accidentally insert the word ‘white’?

Interestingly, two later copies of Forme of Cury have ‘with’ rather than ‘white’, giving us in Middle English the phrase ‘do þerto with poudour douce…’ (‘add thereto with powder douce, etc.’). Though rather clunky, and not the typical form, ‘add thereto with’ does appear a few times elsewhere in other recipes, so ‘with powder douce’ rather than ‘white powder douce’ is a possibility. A further later version uses neither ‘white’ nor ‘with’; it just uses ‘powder douce’ [see note 8].

However, both the Rylands Library copy (the oldest surviving copy and the basis of my own translation) and the British Library copy do specify ‘white’. To me, it seems deliberate: ‘white powder douce’ is a thing, I would suggest. Are there any clues elsewhere in Forme of Cury that might just help us identify this mysterious spice mix? Yes.

In the dish called Peerus in Confyt (poached pears in syrup), the syrup is made using ‘blaunche poudour, oþer whyte sugur & poudour of gynger’, that is, ‘white powder, or white sugar and powder of ginger’. It seems, then, a medieval cook could use something called ‘white powder’ (or ‘powder blanche’), which was probably purchased ready blended, or, as a substitute, make their own using ginger and white sugar.

Being as sugar was essentially treated as a spice, it seems that ginger and white sugar could be what we’re looking at for the spice mix of Pynnonade, for our ‘white powder douce’. I wouldn’t wish to be dogmatic about this. Most commentators and scholars suggest spice mixes would have varied from kitchen to kitchen. And, indeed, in my experiments below, I play around with the spices, as you will see.

Experimenting

Once I worked out that I was making a kind of savoury custard, combined with spiced and sweetened pine nuts, I set about experimenting. The following photos and videos (shot on my phone, so a little rough) show how I got on:

Experiment 1: Pynnonade made with water

Step 1: Making up a version of ‘white powder douce’ spice mix (not very white!). I combined 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of grated ginger root, and ½ teaspoon of grated nutmeg, seen in the bowl, lower right. You can see the dried ginger root and whole nutmeg in the bowl, upper left.

Experiment 1: spice mix
First version of ‘white’ powder douce. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

Step 2: Making the spiced pine nuts. I gently fried 50g (a generous 1/3 cup) of pine nuts in a little olive oil (olive oil was imported into England during the medieval period). Once they had turned golden brown, I removed them off the heat and added the spice mix, plus a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. They looked like this:

Spiced pine nuts, Pynnonade exp. 1
Spiced pine nuts. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

I should point out that I didn’t follow the recipe instruction to add alkanet, which is a red dye obtained from the root of Alkanna tinctoria, a herb in the borage family. This is because it is no longer licensed as a food colouring in Britain (where it goes by the designation E103). I tried using mulberry syrup as an alternative, since mulberries are used as a colourant elsewhere in Forme of Cury, but let’s just say that this didn’t work, and move quickly onto step 3!

Step 3: Making the thick almond milk. I decided to try the water alternative first before going on to use broth in the second experiment. I combined in a saucepan 150g (1½ cups) of ready ground almonds and 250ml (9 US fl oz) of water and gently brought this to a simmer, before stirring for two or three minutes until quite thick.

Almond milk with water
Simmering almond milk. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019

Step 4: Thickening the almond milk with egg yolks. First, I made my egg yolks ‘ydrawe’, that is, yolks ‘drawn’ through a sieve. Notice how the yolk sac is left behind. Tip: wash your sieve straight afterwards. The cameraman-cum-dish-washer complained bitterly because I’d let the yolk dry onto the sieve. Yuck!

The egg yolks were then added and blended into the thick almond milk. I did this off the heat. I then returned it to the heat and gently simmered it for about 2 minutes, until the mixture further thickened. Then, I added the pine nuts:

Step 5: Adding the pine nuts and serving up. I ended up adding all the pine nuts, rather than reserving a few to sprinkle on the top, as I suggested I was going to do in the video below. On reflection, there needed to be more pine nuts, so in the second experiment I doubled the quantities.

I served up the Pynnonade in bowls and tested it on the cameraman, who said it was OK but needed more of an ‘umami’ or savoury flavour. I agreed. I rather liked the spices, but the cameraman thought there was a hint of “cough mixture” going on — perhaps the cinnamon, which I went on to remove from the second experiment.

Pynnonade: experiment 1
Pynnonade: experiment 1. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

I also tried it with the mulberry syrup whilst it was still hot, which I enjoyed. The next day, after refrigerating it, I had it with fresh fruit and honey for breakfast. It was a little like a thick porridge in texture. I thought it was good, but could it be better?

Experiment 2: Pynnonade made with broth — and more pine nuts!

OK, so experimenting in modern medieval cooking is all about finding what tastes really good. I think I sort of get there with this second version.

Step 1: Making a different version of ‘white powder douce’. This time, I dropped the cinnamon, but kept the other ingredients in the same quantities. I still had a few difficulties, however. I ended up tinkering about at the end, adding more ginger and more sugar to the final dish in an attempt to get the warmth of the ginger to come through. I’ll say more about this later.

Step 2: Making the spiced pine nuts. As I indicated above, I decided to double the quantities of pine nuts this time around (100g or 2x 1/3 cup). It was a good decision, giving the finished dish an improved texture and nuttiness.

Step 3: Making the thick almond milk. This is where things changed significantly, as I used a poultry-based stock/broth rather than water.

Technically, a stock differs from a broth in its primary use of bones rather than meat and/or vegetables, though you can pretty much use them interchangeably, I would suggest, or you could create a hybrid like mine [see note 9]. Alternatively, if you don’t have time to make your own broth or stock, there are some pretty decent prepared stocks or broths available in supermarkets these days, or you could even use a good quality stock cube.

I kept the ratios for the almond milk the same: 150g (1½ cups) of ground almonds + 250ml (9 US fl oz) of stock/broth.

Almond milk with stock
Almond milk ingredients: poultry stock/broth and ground almonds. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

I brought this to a gentle simmer and stirred it for a few minutes to thicken it a little:

Step 4: Thickening the almond milk with egg yolks. I followed the same procedure as before, adding the egg yolks gradually with the pan off the heat, before returning the pan to a gentle heat and simmering, whilst constantly stirring, until the mixture thickened further. I did this for a little longer this time, for about 3 or 4 minutes. This made for a slightly thicker texture than in experiment 1.

Step 5: Adding the pine nuts.

Step 6: Tweaking. I ended up adding all the pine nuts, rather than reserving any for decoration. I also added more ground ginger and a little more sugar — about a teaspoon of each — as well as a further pinch of salt.

As I suggested, above, I found it difficult to get the ginger warmth and flavour to come through. I think this may be something to do with the ginger root pieces I was using. I suspect each piece varies in strength, so it may be difficult to be consistent with this. As I develop this recipe further, I’ll try using a ready-ground ginger powder to see if that gives improved flavour.

Pynnonade with…?

There are no directions in Forme of Cury regarding how to eat Pynnonade, but I would say it needs to be eaten with something. The thick custard texture reminds me of other, more modern culinary traditions in which a thick starchy element is used as a foil for the main dish, the way we might eat mashed potatoes or polenta with a meaty stew, for example.

We can however be a little more precise about how Pynnonade was likely eaten in Richard II’s household, by examining a later culinary text which is included in a medieval miscellany known today as London, British Library, Arundel 334. Though dating to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, so about 35 years plus after Forme of Cury was likely penned, it is still worth looking at because it details a menu for a ‘flesh day’, a meat-eating day, in an elite household:

On Flesh-day.

[…]

At the seconde course, jusse[ll], pynenade to potage, and therwithe pygge, kidde, and venyson rosted, fesaunt and hernesewes, ande chekyns rosted.

On a flesh day.

[…]

For the second course: jussel, pynenade as pottage, and with this suckling pig, kid, roasted venison, pheasant and young herons, and roasted chickens.

Middle English text based on the printed edition in A Collection of Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household […] also Receipts in Ancient Cookery (Society of Antiquaries of London, 1790), p. 450, no. 365.
Translation: Christopher Monk © 2019.

It would seem from the above menu that Pynnonade, here spelt slightly differently, was served as the ‘potage’ dish for the second ‘course’, or stage, of the menu, eaten alongside all sorts of fancy roast meats.

The ‘potage’ dish was not typically an actual pottage — a kind of thick soup — but could include things like rich, spicy stews of veal or rabbit, or savoury jellies, or, as you see here, a jussel, which was essentially a savoury broth thickened (and, likely, set if left to cool) with bread and eggs.

But, as it happens, I didn’t have time to roast a pheasant or a haunch of venison — and the local herons were out of bounds — so I tried my Pynnonade #2 in two ways: first with two lovely fried organic eggs from a local farm (and HP sauce!)…

20190819_075318
Warm pynnonade with fried eggs. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

… and then chilled, sliced and drizzled with Manuka honey. Now, that really was delicious!

Pynnonade 2, chilled served with honey
Chilled pynnonade with honey. Photo: Christopher Monk © 2019.

Notes:

[1] Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury), edited by Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Early English Text Society, Special Series 8 (Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 207, ‘pynes/penes’.

[2] Curye on Inglysch, p. 79 (no. 91).

[3] Curye on Inglysch, p. 83 (no. 3).

[4] Curye on Inglysch, p. 47 (no. 21).

[5] The household records of Dame Katherine de Norwich’s show that she acquired boxes of pinionade and other confections in 1336-7; see C. M. Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 98-99.

[6] We should note though that ‘custard’ meant something different in the fourteenth century, essentially any dish baked in a crust, or pie. The Middle English word ‘custard’ (also spelt ‘custade’, ‘crustard’, and ‘crustade’) derives from Anglo-Norman ‘custard’: see The Middle English Dictionary online: crustade [accessed 19.08.2019]. You can search Anglo-Norman ‘custard’ at Anglo-Norman Dictionary.

[7] Curye on Inglysch, p. 109 (no. 52, footnote).

[8] Curye on Inglysch, p. 109 (no. 52, footnote).

[9] I added to a large pan several raw duck carcasses, which still had some sinewy meat on the bones, along with the leftover carcass of a roasted pheasant. (I freeze all carcasses, both raw and those from roast dinners, for the purpose of making stocks.) You could use chicken carcasses, of course. I also added some vegetables: mushrooms, onions, carrots and garlic (all medieval staples). I covered all this in boiling water from the kettle, added a few dried Italian herbs and a good quantity of black pepper, and then simmered this gently for half an hour. I cheated a little at the end by stirring in a couple of spoons of chicken bouillon paste (the wonders of modern food), which really amped up the desired umami taste. If not using this paste, you should lightly season with salt. Once finished cooking, I removed all the bones and vegetable matter and then strained the remaining liquid through cheesecloth. You could forego the latter step. Any stock/broth left over from making Pynnonade makes a wonderful base for a soup.

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