13 Mar 2011

Autour du Pho – Part I

Masala Digestive Cookies

You know when you feel blank, like somebody has wrapped your brain in a comfy duvet that doesn’t let anything escape? Perfect, now you can get why this cover story might be silly and laughable; the main point here is that I want to share with you all a very yummy recipe for my perfect digestive cookies.

I might start by telling you how this recipe came to be, that sounds like a proper idea, no? Six months ago I joined the new chapter of the yearly Rencontres Science, Art et Cuisine; do you remember? I have already joined the caravan 2 years ago and I was lucky enough to win a prize.
Last time the inspiration was “tradition and innovation” this time instead they asked us to use “alternative sugars” in our creations.

After signing in for the competition, I started receiving sugar samples. The first to arrive were the Stevia ones (1st a small pouch and then a small tub of powdered Stevia and to finish a considerable bottle of water solution). Worthless to say that I dag into the little tub straight ahead, thankfully I had a vague idea of how strong this stuff is because a tiny little bit on my pinkie finger was almost enough to blow my mind away!
Incredibly sweet and with a strong lingering licorice flavor as backdrop; the sweetness doesn’t hit you immediately as traditional table-sugar does, the licorice flavor is very persistent instead on the verge to being annoying.
The other sugar that attracted my attention was the isomalt that arrived immediately after the Stevia. Opposite to the latter, isomalt is instead pretty bland in taste and roughly half as sweet as regular sugar. Its most useful property is its melting point between 145°C/63°F and 150°C/66°F while regular table sugar melts at around 186°C/367°F; for this reason isomalt is often used for pulled sugar, blown sugar bubbles and other sugar sculptures. Another good point about isomalt is that it isn’t metabolised by the body, so no caloric remorse, but it is actually treated as fiber.
Isomalt sugar is also perfect for more savoury version of typical sweets so what did I end up making? Savoury macarons naturally! At least I tried to…

Now that I found the what and was sorting out the how, I needed to find out the why so to have a thread to follow. Brainstorming I came up with the possibility of some a duck à l’orange macaron or something with caraway seeds, cocoa and carrots in some way but what really captured my imagination was Vietnamese Pho.
You know what I am talking about, right? One of the most favourite comfort food worldwide,
Pho is a complex Vietnamese soup consisting of a spiced up, deep brown beef stock done as in the best French tradition though with the addition of fresh ginger (sometimes charred). This broth, that often takes a good part of a day to be prepared, is served on top of a thin raw escalope of beef and rice noodles. As every fresh Vietnamese dish it is plenty of fresh vegetables as crunchy soya sprouts and fragrant herbs, usually fresh mint and coriander. A fresh squeeze of lime juice crowns this heart warming dish.
This was the perfect dish to transpose in an all sugars version, still being savoury mind you.
This macaron trial was another one to add to my long collection of failures. This time the recipe was correct and perfect but I didn’t take into account the melting temperature of isomalt as well as its solubility in water.

Isomalt is in effect only soluble at roughly 30% in water at room temperature; table sugar instead has a degree of solubility of 60-70%. As other sugars, isomalt solubility degree increases with temperature reaching almost totality at boiling point but, what goes up it has to go down no? So it recrystalizes upon cooling, this is why when I made the Italian Meringue it started very fluid, got nice and creamy but it became grainy and dry pretty fast; don’t worry though, you have got plenty of time to work with it.
The low melting point becomes important when baking the cookies because they fail to get crispy and acquire a nice chewy texture but easily melting in the mouth. The spice mixture was just right; aromatic, earthy with a hint of pepperiness at the end.

Epices du Pho

Earthy, with the right amount of sweetness and that peppery kick, even good for your bowels; what can you ask more from a digestive cookie??
So finally I give you the first component of my “Autour du Pho” dish:
Masala Digestive Cookies

Masala Digestive Cookies

Ingredients (makes 25-30 cookies):

  • 1g of star-anise 
  • 1g cinnamon 
  • 1g of grains of fenugreek 
  • 2g long peppercorns

Almond paste:

  • 125g powdered almonds 50g of isomalt
  • 10g starch
  • 1/2 tbsp of cocoa powder 
  • 0.5g of MSG granules 
  • 45g of egg white

Italian Meringue:

  • 35g water
  • 125g of isomalt 
  • 45g of egg white
  • Lemon juice

Let’s start by making the masala. Gather all the spices in a coffee grinder and process them until you obtain a fine powder, to ease the process you can coarsely break the star-anise and cinnamon by hand first. With a whisk mix thoroughly the powdered spices with the almonds, the isomalt, the starch, the cocoa powder and the MSG granules. Add the egg white to the dry ingredient mixture and incorporate it using a spatula. Let the mixture infuse in a warm environment covered with plastic wrap until you are ready to fold in the Italian meringue.

Masala Digestive Cookies

In a small saucepan mix the water with the isomalt. Warm up the syrup stirring until all the isomalt will be dissolved. Carefully let it boil until it reaches 120C of temperature.
In the meantime whisk the egg whites with few drops of lemon juice on medium speed until thick peaks will form and preheat your oven to 150C.
When the syrup will be at 120C, turn the speed of your mixer to the maximum and slowly drizzle it over the whipped egg-whites. The meringue will look quite fluid but continue whisking and it will thicken up while cooling down. Stop whisking at the moment it will reach the creamy glossy consistency of regular Italian meringue.

Italian Meringue

Working quite fast (the meringue will dry up upon cooling) fold the meringue in the almond paste. Using a 1/2 tbsp cookie spoon (a regular measuring spoon will work as well), portion the dough over baking paper placed on a cookie sheet.
Slide the cookies in the oven and let them cook for 10 minutes.
Let the cookies cool-down on a grate before transferring them in an airtight container for storage.

Stay tuned for next episodes of this tasty series.


  1. Autour du Pho ...woot woot! As usual, love your high level of experimentation and creativity Alessio. And do love the pictures too!

  2. Those look really yummy :) I love your pictures, they're beautiful :)

  3. They look crumbly and delicious! In our family we call them Suggestive Biscuits!

  4. What excellent photography and delicious Phos! Alessio, first of thank you for RSVP-ing on my site for the CRAZY FOR CAKES event - I look forward to your entry - Cheers, priya