This time of year, every wine blogger struggles to come up with a holiday-themed post. Unlike Thanksgiving, where most people still eat turkey, the winter holiday season is filled with a huge variety of food, making generalized pairings difficult. There’s a lot of defaulting to champagne or other sparkling wines. Not because they necessarily go with the food (although they probably will), but because they seem more festive. And who doesn’t want festive this time of year?
But lo and behold, I have a piece of holiday-specific pairing advice: Don’t pair wine and Christmas carols.
A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview with Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University. Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen questioned Spence about his experiments on sounds and flavor. In particular, the interaction of wine and music, and whether music can enhance particular flavors in wine.
My own experience working in food product development reminded me that all sorts of stimuli can affect the flavor of food. What we perceive of as the “right” color for a particular food can make us believe that the food tastes better than it does – even over something that tastes better in a blind tasting but has the “wrong” color for that particular food item. But I’d never heard anything about sound affecting the taste of food.
Dr. Spence’s research is publicly available and remarkably jargon-free, and I recommend you read some of his work. Here are a few findings that stood out for me:
- In general, pleasant – or at least, conventionally melodic – music makes food taste better, while unpleasant (dissonant, irregularly rhythmic) music either suppresses flavor or actively makes food taste bad.
- Very loud music or noise also suppresses flavor, and can make food taste bad. (Take that, you trendy hipster/millennial restaurants – I’m not just an old coot after all!)
- As for wine and music specifically, Spence found that higher-pitched music tends to enhance the sweetness of wine, while lower-pitched music can make tannins more pronounced.
So how did we get from here to my warning about Christmas carols? (Yes, I’m the one being the Grinch, not Dr. Spence.) While Christmas carols are generally pleasant (and conventionally melodic), they definitely become less pleasant with repeated hearings. And it’s one thing to have them on as background music, but if you’re singing them, they’re definitely loud. Finally, all those jingling bells and angel choruses are most likely high-pitched. So unless you’re setting out to drink sweet wine, you might find yourself unpleasantly surprised at how the carols make your wine taste unintentionally (if only slightly) sweet.
Of course, there are plenty of things other than wine to drink with your carols. I think a smoky single-malt scotch would be great – particularly jingly carols might suppress some of the bitter notes and give a slight sweetness that might not otherwise be noticeable. Or try something with a dash of bitters, like a Manhattan. You could take a completely different tack and try sweetened, spiced wine with your carols, too. (You won’t catch me doing that, though.)
Spence admits up front that the idea of music and wine enhancing each other doesn’t sit well with everyone. And also that a professional taster might want to eliminate sound distractions because they’ll potentially interfere with concentration, not necessarily that they’ll affect the taste of the wine. Still, I think it’s certainly worth exploring, and I’ll try to remember to find some fitting music to play the next time I open a really good bottle.
In the meantime, I’m hoping that Christmas carols don’t really make wine taste bad. Maybe I’ll have to experiment and see if there are just the right carols to go with particular wines. An excuse to drink during the day for science — that’s my real holiday gift!
You may remember a post I wrote lo these many years ago about the eggnog party Cy and I host every December. This year will be our 15th one. We make three different kinds of eggnog, all without booze, and let our guests put whatever they want in their glasses.
And every year we make a bunch of sweets to go with the eggnog. Because the nog itself doesn’t have enough sugar, right? ;-) Although we have a core group of cookies and such that we make every year, we do occasionally try to add something new. Last year, we thought it would be fun to make a figgy pudding – like the carol commands. We looked for recipes, but “puddings” aren’t exactly finger food. And they seemed like more trouble than even the most demanding of cookies.
Instead, we decided to go with a recipe I found for shortbread cookies with some fig jam in them. The recipe was easy enough (bar cookies are definitely your friend when you have to make a lot of them), but seemed a little bland. So I spiced them up, with cardamom, ground cloves, ground mace, and cinnamon. I also added a little ground white pepper, an ingredient in some spice cookies. The result was delicious, and I think they’ll enhance any holiday table. A few tips: definitely use parchment paper and make the sheet long enough so you can lift the cookies right out of the pan, using the paper as a kind of sling. It will make your life easier. Also, it’s worth investing in a straight-sided 13 x 9 inch pan for baking. The corners all come out perfectly, and you don’t get slanty or curvy end pieces. Finally, I found that two jars of fig spread were still not enough to get the 1-1/2 cups needed for the recipe. So I added about a quarter cup of apricot preserves. The cookies are really rich, so a little zip is nice.
Fig jam isn’t necessarily easy to find unless you’re in the southern U.S. But you can probably find Adriatic Fig Spread at a supermarket that has a good cheese section. It’s often served with cheese, especially blue cheeses. But it’s delicious on toast, too. And really intense, because it’s made with dried figs. You’ll know there are figs in these cookies.
I’m going to default to the typical blogger recommendation this season and go with champagne. Why fight tradition if you don’t have to? There’s something wonderful about buttery goodness along with champagne. All of our champagnes from Bernard Mante are good. But if you’re looking for something exceptional, try his new Blanc de Blancs ($52). It’s 100% Chardonnay. According to the latest health study hoo-ha, Blanc de Blancs won’t give you that extra cardiovascular and possible memory protection that you’ll find in champagnes with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. But were you really expecting a health drink to go along with your butter and sugar? ‘Tis the season folks, don’t fight it!
Cheers and Happy Holidays!
Makes 4 dozen cookies
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour (measured by dipping the dry measure cup into the flour and sweeping the top level with the cup)
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 1/2 cups fig jam, preserves, or dried fig spread
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Cut a length of parchment paper long enough to line the bottom of the pan with a little extra to hang over the short sides. Spray the paper and the uncovered sides of the pan again.
In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and spices. Combine the butter and sugars in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer set at medium speed, beat until creamy, about 4 minutes. Beat in the vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract. On low speed, mix in the flour mixture in four parts, beating just until incorporated. Once all the flour is in, beat for about 30 seconds if the dough doesn’t seem mixed.
Press one third of the shortbread dough into the prepared pan, in an even layer. Wrap the remaining shortbread dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. Bake the bottom crust until it is firm and just beginning to turn a pale golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven, and spread the jam or preserves evenly over the crust. Using your fingers, crumble all of the remaining chilled shortbread dough over the jam to form a pebbly, crumbled topping. Return the pan to the oven and continue baking until the topping is firm and pale golden in color, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Use a knife to loosen the bars from the edge of the pan, then grab the overhanging parchment and lift the whole thing straight out and onto a cutting board. Peel away the parchment paper. Slice the bars in any size you like – you should get at least 48 small cookies from the pan.