Posted on September 17th, 2012
When I was teaching cooking classes I’d strongly suggest that people listen to music when they cook, as one of a number of things they could do to help themselves relax in the kitchen and get themselves excited about whatever it was they were going to cook. (Relaxation and excitement being two very powerful elements in the molding of a good cook.) “Pick something related to your menu,” I’d suggest. “Flamenco for tapas, Bollywood soundtracks for Indian food, Edith Piaf for French food. This will help you set the scene for your culinary masterpiece!” (People love being told they’re going to create a masterpiece.) But it really is true – appropriate music can put you in the right mood, and in the kitchen the right mood can be the difference between a killer dinner party and a dud of a meal.
But what’s appropriate for one person is very different from what’s appropriate for another. Sure, when I’m cooking chicken piccata I like some “Dean Martin Sings Italian Favorites” as much as the next person, but my favorite food and music pairing is a little more complex. I’m a baker more than I am anything else, and what I want more than anything else when I’m baking is hip hop. I want hip hop, I want it loud, and I want it pumped directly into my eardrums via a set of close-fitting headphones, iPhone hanging out of my apron pocket or tucked in my waistband. Flamenco might make you feel romantic and exotic while you’re expertly flipping that tortilla Española, but when I’m in my own little technical world of doughs and batters and leavening, with all of its precise measurements and on-the-spot troubleshooting and instinctual decision-making, I need the intensity and the in-your-face bravado of some old school Notorious B.I.G.. Your terrine sauvage might have been lovingly crafted in the breathy setting of a Carla Bruni album, but my triple layer polenta cake with crème fraîche buttercream has a terroir of badass and I feel fantastic about it.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m so drawn to this combination, actually. Perhaps it has something to do with how baking still makes me a little nervous, even though it’s what I do in the kitchen more than anything else. I can braise and roast and grill and chop my way through almost anything with a reasonable amount of skill, but even though my kitchen produces a somewhat shocking volume of baked goods I still get a little nervous once something goes into the oven, left to my decisions about timing and to the fates of heat and leavening. Listening to hip hop while I’m baking makes me feel confident – like the one and only baller and shot caller of my own kitchen – and I know from teaching classes that confidence in the kitchen can make a big difference in the final product. Or maybe it’s like how in college I used to like writing papers in the loudest and most chaotic of environments, because it helped me create my own little very focused world while everything else swirled around me. Maybe it provides a rhythm that soothes me into steady kneading, or mixing, or scooping. Or maybe there’s just something weirdly satisfying about rolling out delicate sheets of homemade puff pastry while Missy encourages me to “work it.”
Important to note here is that I didn’t come up with this pairing out of nowhere. Hip hop artists have been referencing food in their lyrics since way back to The Sugarhill Gang, basically at the start of it all, and since then basically everyone’s been rapping about everything from the best to the worst in the food world. (Drake fairly recently released a song that references The French Laundry, for instance, and if you have not heard Das Racist’s passionate ode to a certain combination fast food restaurant, consider your life unlived.) Sure, there might be product placements and complicated publicity agreements behind some of it, but I doubt the Beastie Boys received kickbacks for rapping about challah and matzoh, and the brilliant media moment of Snoop Dogg baking brownies on the Martha Stewart show cannot be tainted in my heart of hearts. Should you find yourself in front of a computer (hey, I bet you are right now) wishing you had a few more of these hilarious pieces of evidence, immediately google the following: “Cookin’ with Coolio,” and “Bon Rappetit” (the latter of which turns out to be an elaborate joke, sadly, but Ol’ Dirty Custard is still the most brilliant fake menu item ever created).
But with a plethora of options to choose from, my preferred audio-culinary pairing does not come without a certain amount of deliberate consideration. The music and the food item must still be carefully paired, calibrated appropriately for the effort, detail, and intricacy required by the recipes and techniques in question. A batch of chocolate chip cookies work particularly well with a bit of vintage Lauryn Hill, I have found, but something like genoise or puff pastry requires something far more potent, like Talib Kweli, or some of the more intense Beastie Boys albums. I’m not always particularly aware of exactly what’s playing once I’m in the zone, but it’s always there, pushing me further into a zone in which I am the most awesome and in which everything is kicking ass. One time I was focusing on a particularly high-pressure baking job and didn’t even realize I’d been listening to Gangsta’s Paradise on repeat for 15 minutes, rapping along all the while in my awkwardly-melodic Midwestern white girl way. But those Thai iced tea cakes turned out perfectly, and I have Coolio partially to thank for that.
My baked goods are produced by a powerful combination of sugar, perfectionism, inappropriate lyrics, and pumping beats, and if that’s what makes people enjoy them (and sometimes even want to pay me for them), then I’m happy to give credit where credit is due. So I’ll state it on the record: that birthday cake I made for you was fueled by Big Pun as much as it was by cake flour, and those delicate lavender madeleines had as much to do with my dedication to The Roots as they did with my dedication to my oven thermometer.