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8 Jun 2011

Sweet, Sweet Awards

Autour du Pho

Sugar; we all know this fella, don't we?
A mysterious substance able to give us pleasure; not guilt free unfortunately.
Coming in all the shades of brown, tawny to sparkling white we are used to sprinkle it on many of our food items to enhance their flavors. Present in many natural products it represents the way nature is able to store easily accessible energies; it won't come to any surprise then that it is made of just about the most abundant chemical elements present on Earth: Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen.
Since few years we have been coming accustomed to choose among different varieties of sugars. Being them of natural origins or artificial, the main reason driving research in this field is the delivery of guilt-free low caloric substitutes for saccharose.

If from one side we restrict our kids' sugar intake, we as society have been over-exposed to sweetness for the last century or so; the result is a sort of dependency on this chemical.
"A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down!" sang Mary Poppins to the whining kids and that's what we tell to ourselves often and again.

Variety of offers results though in a difficulty of choice. 
Till few decades ago most of the sugar substitutes (aspartame, saccharin etc) were available only to industries to perfect their low caloric but still sweet products. Now we find them on our supermarket shelves tempting us.
This sugar revolution is still ongoing, new products have been made available to the final customers to enrich their sweet pantry.

In this optic of events, last year the new round of the "Rencontres Science, Art et Cuisine" were dedicated to sugars. Using the different physical and gustatory properties of various sugary-compounds, we were asked to create something that could underline their qualities being it a dish or a cocktail.
This couldn't have come at a better moment for me; since some time I was in effect thinking about experimenting with sugars (mostly to reduce the sweetness of certain baked goods).
Thanks to the event sponsors, we were given samples of isomalt, oligofructose and rebaudioside (Stevia derived sugar).

These sugars spanned the vast spectrum of physic-chemical properties of sweet molecules.
- Isomalt is the least sweet of them all, with the equivalent of half the sweetness as regular table-sugar (saccharose), isomalt is mostly used as bulking ingredient in confectionery. Compared to regular sugar, it also melts at a lower temperature (145-150°C/290-300F while sucrose melts at 186°C/367F) and, strangely enough, it is a hydrophobic substance. This means that it isn't so easy to dissolve in water, especially at room temperature when its solubility is of roughly 20% but it increases with water temperature. Because of these properties it is nowadays the go-to sugar for sugar artists working with pulled or melted sugars. As a molecule, it is a sugar alcohol so our body is not able to process it properly; it is more treated like fiber by the stomach and it is partially broken down in the large intestines (with associated possible socially harmful side-effects).

Crystallized Coriander

- Oligofructose is a derivative of fruits' sugar fructose. Opposite to isomalt, this one is highly hydrophilic; it is actually ravenously attracted to water! As fructose, this is a pretty sweet compound but also with quite a complex flavor reminiscent of spun sugar. Its hydrophilicity makes it a little tacky to your teeth, enhancing the feeling of been eating spun sugar. This sugar is mostly used in cold preparation as in isotonic drinks also because of its low glycemic index.

- Rebaudioside A or Stevia sugar is a natural compound extracted from the Stevia plant. It is highly sweet (30.000 times more than regular sugar) and with a more pronounced flavor than fructose. Its sweetness is perceived slowly by the tongue so it may be difficult to dose at a glance and leave a persistent herbal, licorice-like aftertaste. Because of this characteristic and also because it is still outlawed in some countries this compound is mostly used in conjunction of other fast active sugar and with strong flavors so to conceal its aftertaste.

Initially I sat off by wanting to use the Stevia-sugar just because of its aftertaste (I kind of hate table sugar for its chalky-blandness) but once started with brainstorming recipes, it slipped off the palette. Its place was taken by Isomalt; its mild sweetness was quite appealing to me. And what is the sweetest element by excellence that most of us would love to have just less "in your face"?
Yes, exactly, French macarons!

These little colorful buttons can easily be overly sweet (to the limit of being internally caramelized, as it happened to me in a local bar) with their delicate flavors barely passing through. The idea of making a savory macaron that would also be just enough sweet passed through my mind, and actually stayed in there.
The project was set now I had just to find something that could be rendered in a creamy consistency so to be used as filling for the meringue shells.
Two ideas lit up: Canard à l'Orange and Pho. I went for the latter...

This complex Vietnamese soup has the complexity, the layering and enough of European tradition to make it fit for a gastronomical contest in France.
This soup is more than what catches the eyes: a base of rich beefy broth winking at Escoffier but spiced up with what I call "brown spices", cinnamon, star anise, black pepper and the oriental touch of the zesty ginger (sometimes charred) is made more challenging by the addition of a beef escalope, rice noodles, crunchy fresh bean sprouts, the omnipresent fresh coriander and mint leaves to be topped by a squirt of vibrant lime. A really DIY soup, make it more a pasta dish or a veggie soup; it is all in your hands.
I don't know but probably some bells a ringing in your head by now (no, not the one coming from your tummy).
The dish I devised can be thought of consisting of 3 parts: a broth-equivalent, the meaty part and the fresh garnishes.

The macarons shells were the perfect ambassadors to convey the broth rich spiciness; the filling would be the meaty part instead. Do I hear those bells ringing now??
Matter of fact, I have already shared with you both these components as my Masala Digestive Cookies and Gingery Chicken Mousse.
Now we just need to play the construction game and put everything together, but first let’s complete the story telling part.
You might remember my Paris visit in March? That was the award presentation ceremony.

This was the first time I had to talk in public in French and I was quite worried about it. Have you heard my English accent? I sound Indian! I feared what I could sound in French; furthermore I had to hold a microphone.
I asked my friend Yolanda to join me at the presentation and poor thing had to tolerate my ranting about each and every presentation before mine (we were divided between group/school participants and individual ones so it took more than two hours before my turn, two hours of ranting). Finally it came my turn and thankfully the allotted time wasn't so strict so I could try and overcome my vocabulary limitations.
Despite everything, I think it went quite well.

6th Rencontres Science, Art et Cuisine

It turned out I got the 3rd place among the individual participants and this was my prize another stunning Larousse publication: The Larousse of Cocktails.

Le Larousse des Cocktails

While we are talking about competitions, do you remember the "Ruffle my Feathers" cake I submitted for Priya's event? Anita Gupta, the judge, awarded me the Best Cake Decoration Award!! 

Deconstructed Pho au saveurs sucrées

Autour du Pho

Ingredients (per serving) :
  • Lime Jelly:
    • Juice of one lime
    • 1.5 Sheet of gelatin, softened in water
    • Green food coloring (optional)
    • Wide, flat shallow glass or plastic container
    • Vegetable oil, enough to fill the aforementioned container, very cold

In a little saucepan or a metal ladle, gently melt the softened gelatin on low fire. Combine it with the lime juice and add few drops of green food coloring (if using).
Since the lime juice is very sour and gelatin is weakened in sour environment, I would suggest you to check the strength of your by simply dripping some gelatin mixture into a little bowl set over ice water. If the lime-jelly doesn't set put some more gelatin sheet to soften in water and add it to the jelly as above.
Let the gelatin cool down until it will be almost set.
At this point fill the thin-tall container with the very cold oil and gently drip the lime gelatin mixture into it. You want to produce little jelly droplets of roughly 5mm/1/4" in diameter. Let the jelly set in the oil at room temperature for 1h or so and then transfer it into the fridge until properly set or ready to use.

Lime Jelly Droplets

Now let's prepare the chicken mousse for serving. Scoop 1tbsp of cold mousse into your lightly wet hands and roll it until you get a sphere. Set it on a toothpick on then pierce it on a sponge, orange or alike. You want your mousse balls to be well chilled before the next step so place them into the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Prepare the sugar caramel by melting sugar on a medium flame. When it will achieve a nice amber color shock the bottom of the pan in a bowl of cold water to stop the caramel from further cooking.
Retrieve the mousse balls from the fridge and dribble some caramel on each of them in a decorative fashion. This step is better done shortly before serving because, over time, the caramel will melt in contact with the mousse.
To crystallize the coriander leaves simply wet their upward side with a little water using a brush. Be careful not to create water droplets, in case use some kitchen paper to wipe off the excess water. Dust then the wet side with the oligofructose and let stand for 5 minutes or so, do not let them stand too much or the sugar will melt down.
To assemble the dish, place one cookie dome-side up on the serving plate. Place on top a ball of chicken mousse gluing it on place using a little extra dab of mousse. Surround it with three crystallized coriander leaves, three chicken cracklings; add few lime jelly droplets and serve.


  1. Wow Alessio! Congratulations on all those awards! And thanks for the extensive lesson in sugartypes too I've been curious about stevia for a while now but haven't really seen it anywhere...

  2. I would like to taste this; I imagine all the textures and favours wiuld go very well together. Congratulations on the award-- well deserved!

  3. Holy cow. What a 'novel'. We are trying to grow Stevia plant in our tunnel out back. So far it is growing and the kids are just eating the leaves as they grow but we have not actually used it yet in cooking. Great great great post my friend. So informative.

  4. Super congratulations and you know how proud I am of you?!! But oh you forgot to tell me that you had to present in French? Oh wish I could have been there! And all this about sugar? Please, just make me dessert!