A grad school friend of mine handed me a pair of headphones once; a very large, oversized pair meant for heads and ears much more sizeable than mine I have to believe.
“Okay, can you hear the music?” he asked me, as he adjusted the heavy earpieces to keep them from falling off my head entirely. I’d replied that yes, yes I could hear it and I instantly lowered my voice when it became apparent, judging by the alarmed looks of the folks nearby, that I was speaking very loudly – too loudly, given that we were in the library. “Yes,” I whispered. “Loud and clear.”
“Good! Now, go ahead and walk a full loop around the quad and tell me what you think, and make sure you really stare at everyone you pass; really check them out okay?” You see, my friend had this idea that people look more attractive when set to the sounds of classical music, and he wanted to test his theory out on me. Growing tired of studying for whatever test we had that day and looking for any excuse to procrastinate, I was up for the job and happily volunteered to help him test it out … this very serious, procrastination-driven theory of his.
“Roger that,” I’d said to him, and after giving a mock salute, the world’s most cumbersome set of headphones and I set off on our stroll around campus to see what we could see. Or, more specifically, to see who we could see. The utterly stunning sound of Bach’s Orchestral Suite Number 3 in D Major was playing in my ears as I began my little experimental walk, and I couldn’t help but laugh. My friend was right. Things somehow seemed brighter, better, more beautiful. Passersby seemed more peaceful, collectively so, and I was more inclined to smile at everyone, to offer a wave. People did, in fact, seem more attractive and it was the music that did it. For the full five minutes and some odd seconds of that walk, campus was radiating a sort of serene beauty that I’d yet to experience there, prior to this experiment. By jove, I think he’s on to something here …
As it turns out though, he really was on to something, that friend of mine. His theory that music can enhance our sensory experiences has been tested and proven by scientists time and again, and it has even been applied to the culinary world. Psychologists have found that certain types of music can enrich the enjoyment of food and wine, and researchers have even figured out how to sonically embody various flavor profiles. Sourness is high-pitched … sweetness is richer and rounded at the ends … bitterness is deeper, more mordant …
“Musical pairing recognizes that our senses play off each other in ways that we do not yet fully comprehend – that our ears unconsciously inform our taste buds … We have found that people even experience 15% more pleasure if music matches the wine. It is an exciting area: how soundscapes come together with taste to make the whole experience more enjoyable … It’s a kind of digital seasoning.” – Professor Charles Spence, Oxford University (www.theguardian.com)
Digital seasoning. Hmmm … I think I like that, I mused, upon first reading an article about this topic in The Guardian. I felt inspired – implored – to test it out myself, as a bit of an extension of the theory-testing fun I had with my friend in grad school years ago. This time however, my subject would not be the innocent bystanders around a university campus but rather, a sweet and warmly spiced creme brûlée. Because thanks to some hardworking scientists in Oxford, England, this dish can apparently reach new heights when enjoyed to the sounds of none other than the lovely Billie Holiday.
The song, “Autumn in New York, is a jazz standard that was initially penned by Vernon Duke for the Broadway musical, Thumbs Up. Becoming somewhat of an instant classic, the song has been performed by many artists since its initial composition in 1934, from Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn to a fantastic duet by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. All of the versions are lovely, an opinion of mine that is both new, as I had never heard the song prior to this week, and live, as I am listening to the songs on a loop as I write this post. What is it though, about Billie Holiday’s version that makes it the perfect pairing for a Fall-spiced pumpkin dessert? Are the psychologists pulling our legs? Is it more of a suggestion than a literal thing? Is it because pumpkin = Autumn, and vice versa? I wondered these things as I happily whisked together my custard, pouring it into the ramekins and sending them into the oven in their comfy, hot water bath.
Dreamers with empty hands may sigh for exotic lands;
It’s Autumn in New York;
It’s good to live it again.
There really is something warm, inviting and almost magical about her voice as she sings this song. Listening to it feels like the musical equivalent of wearing a thick, cable-knit sweater and sipping on a mug of hot cocoa. It’s completely pleasant and wonderful; almost like I’d heard it a hundred times before, even though it was totally new to me prior to my first listen just a couple of days ago. Comfortable …
I licked the pumpkin-filled batter off my spatula as I washed the dishes and, incidentally, felt a very similar sentiment. The flavors in the custard gave me the nostalgic satisfaction of the first bite of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day: cozy … a little spicy … comfortable. But it was something new though, something I’d never tried before. Just like Ms. Holiday’s “Autumn in New York.” I’m sure this isn’t why the scientists paired this particular dessert with Billie’s version of the song, but maybe that part is up for interpretation? Maybe that is my interpretation? Maybe.
I am not a scientist (but my husband is). I am not a professional singer (but my mother-in-law is). And I am not a professional chef (but I have multiple relatives and friends who are). But the good news here is that you do not have to be a professionally trained anything to gain real, full satisfaction out of either of the test subjects in this experiment, be it the creme brûlée or the jazz standard. Enjoy them alone, enjoy them together – the experience will be a happy one to be sure. But if you seem to be having trouble finding the special something that Billie’s “Autumn in New York” is purported to add to a pumpkin creme brûlée eating experience, then might I suggest you take your dessert and song with a small glass of a good Bourbon? Because this good Kentucky girl has learned that sometimes experience can garner wisdom as reliable as science, and my experience has proven the following hypothesis to be true: if good music can’t make your food taste better, then good Bourbon probably can.
Cheers and Happy Holidays, everyone (be it Billie or otherwise).
Pumpkin, Maple & Brown Sugar Creme Brûlée with Toasted Pecans RECIPE
(This recipes serves 4)
2 cups half and half
5 eggs yolks
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup canned pure pumpkin, unsweetened
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
8 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 cup pecans, lightly toasted (I do this in a small dry pan for 2 minutes over medium-high heat. stirring a couple of times as they toast)
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half just until small bubbles form around the edges.
In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks, brown sugar, vanilla extract, salt, pumpkin, maple syrup, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Whisk everything to evenly combine, creating a smooth mixture.
When the half and half is just beginning to bubble slightly, very slowly whisk it into the pumpkin/egg mixture until you have a smooth custard.
Place 4 (ungreased) 4-inch ramekins, or round tart pans into a 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Set this pan on the oven rack (in middle position) in the oven and pour the pumpkin custard mixture into the ramekins/dishes. Pour boiling water into the pan, around the dishes, until it comes about halfway up their sides (this allows for more even baking and is often done with custard-based dishes).
Bake the custards for 18 – 22 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the centers of each comes out clean. Take the dishes out of the pan and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour (this will allow the custards to set).
After they have chilled for at least one hour, remove the custards from the fridge and place on a baking sheet or back in the baking pan you used previously (no water this time). Cover each of the custards with an even layer of granulated sugar, about 1/4″ thick. About 1.5 – 2 tablespoons of sugar should be fine. Position your oven rack to the top/highest position. Place the baking sheet with the custards into the oven, on the highest rack. Broil the custards until the sugar has melted, bubbled and begun to turn a deep amber color, about 65 to 75 seconds in my oven. This works best if you keep an eye on them though, rather than adhering to a strict time, as broilers and ovens vary.
Top the creme brûlées with chopped, toasted pecans and enjoy.