Hello medieval-minded food lovers. Today, I'm talking about a lovely, light poached chicken dish I made just last night, and particularly about the spicy magic that lifts the dish, also known as powder douce.
Powder douce (poudre douce, powdour douce) is a spice mix that was used in many of the recipes of King Richard II's household. 'Cast thereon powder douce', or something similar, is a phrase that is used frequently throughout Forme of Cury, the king's official cookery book. I can imagine hearing it shouted by the master cook as the dishes were served forth.
But what is powder douce?
There are no recipes for the mix found in medieval English cookery books, which is slightly annoying! Lots of commentators have made suggestions, including that it contained sugar as well as spices. Powder douce, that is 'sweet powder', seems to have been taken quite literally.
What I will say, now that I have completed a working edition and translation of Forme of Cury (based on the John Rylands Library copy, which is the earliest and best complete version of the text), is that there is no good evidence that powder douce contained sugar in Richard II's kitchen.
The fact that sugar is often given as an ingredient alongside powder douce, though it doesn't rule out the possibility of sugar being an element of the mix, does tend to support the thesis that it was the spices in the mix that were judged to be 'sweet' in some sense.
What might help us here, in identifying the possible spices, is to consider a contemporaneous Italian cookery book, known as Libro di Cucina. That Italian cuisine influenced English food of the period is evident from the inclusion of a number of pasta dishes in Forme of Cury. So it makes sense to avail ourselves of the information in this Italian work, and it just so happens that it does have a recipe for 'sweet spices':
LXXIV. Specie dolce per assay cosse bone e fine.
LXXIV Sweet spices, enough for many good and fine things.
You can imagine that I was very pleased to come across this in my research, for it gave me an authentic base for creating my own powder douce, or sweet powder mix.
Interestingly, the mention of lamprey (a kind of eel) in this Italian recipe prompted me to check two lamprey recipes mentioned in Forme of Cury: one, a fish pie in which lamprey was one of the fish options, uses both powder douce and powder fort (see my post on powder fort here); the other, Lampreys in Galentine Sauce, doesn't mention powder douce but does use three of the four spices from the Italian spice mix, namely powder of ginger, flour of cinnamon, and powder of cloves, with the addition of powder of galangal (of the ginger family).
So to my recipe for powder douce... and to how I used it to spice up the chicken dish mentioned at the outset.
15g (½ oz) Ceylon cinnamon bark* (about 2-3 sticks, depending on their size)
15g (½ oz) dried ginger root (whole or pieces)
4g (⅛ oz) whole cloves (about 40-45 individual cloves)
1 rounded tablespoon ground Indian bay leaf# (made from a good handful of leaves)
This gives you approximately half the quantity of the medieval Italian recipe.
*It's best to use Ceylon ('true') cinnamon rather than cassia bark (often sold as cinnamon); this is what seems to be alluded to by 'soft cinnamon' in the Italian recipe; the bark of Ceylon cinnamon is indeed softer and easier to break than cassia. #Indian bay leaf appears to be implied by the Italian folio ('leaf'); I haven't been able to locate a copy of the edition of Libro de cucina that contains the glossary where it is identified as such, so I am trusting the translator's note on this.
For grinding, a useful tip: use a coffee grinder for cinnamon, ginger root and Indian bay leaves, but DO NOT use a coffee grinder for cloves as the oil sticks to and stains any plastic part of the grinder (you may be fine if you have a complete stainless steel grinder); use a pestle and mortar for cloves instead, or indeed use pestle and mortar for all the spices.
Grind each spice individually until a fine powder; sieve out any lumpy debris. Then mix the spices well and give one last grind and sieve. Store in an airtight jar. You can, of course, make more mix up than this, but spices do lose their freshness and intensity after grinding, so I think it is better to grind a relatively small amount.
Now for the medieval dish in which I used my powder douce. It goes by the Middle English name of Chykens in hocche, 'chicken in hodge-podge':
The stuffing in
I still wish to develop this dish further before releasing a definitive recipe, but here's essentially what I did:
I placed the chicken into a large pot with organic chicken stock (I normally make my own, but for this I bought two cartons), a few Indian bay leaves, and a little more salt and pepper. I brought this slowly to simmering point, put the lid on the pan, and then turned the temperature down to maintain a very gentle simmer (barely a bubble), cooking it for approximately an hour (my chicken was medium sized).
Once the chicken was cooked (do check your temperatures: recommended temperatures vary; I cooked mine so that the chicken breast at its thickest point reached 77ºC (170ºF); there should be no red or pink juices in evidence), I removed it to a carving plate and then added some powder douce (about 4 heaped teaspoons) to the stock and turned off the heat.
I strained the stock and reserved some for the final dishing up (the rest will get used in making a risotto). I carved the chicken breasts, put this along with the reserved stock into a serving dish and sprinkled a generous teaspoon of powder douce directly onto the chicken breast.
I served some of the grapes and garlic from the stuffing alongside the chicken with a bowl of rice and some asparagus. And don't worry, I did share it, and we did eat the leg meat too.
Verdict: lovely, sweet tender chicken, and a really light, delicately spicy broth. The addition of the spice on the chicken meat itself is definitely recommended: it really lifted it.
As I said, above, I am going to develop this recipe further before filming it for my video series. I think I want to boost the spice quotient, so I will probably add whole spices to the broth as the chicken poaches: a cinnamon stick or two, a few cloves, a few slices of ginger root, and a handful of Indian bay leaves. I may also put the herbs into the broth, rather than stuff them into the chicken cavity.
So please stay tuned, and do let me know if you have a go yourself!