Hot ice-cream success! (And synaesthesia.)

You might remember my previous attempt at making hot ice-cream — the ice cream that you poach in hot water and then it melts as it cools to room temperature. It worked, technically, but I wasn’t happy with the flavour since it just tasted like cream cheese, which, you know, doesn’t taste like ice-cream (unless you have cream cheese ice-cream, I guess, but who has that? That’s right, no one. Well, some people, but they’re not the sort of people I want anything to do with).

So I went on the quest to develop a hot ice-cream recipe that tastes like normal vanilla icecream. And after some experimentation and various mishaps, ye gods, I think I’ve actually done it.

Jack at Homologous Legs happened to tweet about the old recipe at one stage, saying that he’d be all for it if the hot ice-cream was in iced chocolate, as opposed to the iced coffee I’d put it in to make the reverse affogato. And I thought yes, that’s a good point. So in this iteration of the recipe, I changed the lovely bath in which the hot ice-cream resides from iced coffee to a cinnamon chocolate frappé. Just because I can. (But methylcellulose also thickens at low temperatures as well as 50°C+ temperatures, so the frappé is going to cause the ice-cream to melt and then solidify again, which I pretend is all part of the thrilling and dynamic dining experience.)

So there you go. Hot ice-cream that melts as it cools. It’s kind of amazing and it defies the senses.

You know else is kind of amazing and defies the senses? (Behold the world’s most stunning segue.)


For those of you who have the unfortunate circumstances of not knowing about the mind-melting amazingness of synaesthesia, it is a condition in which perception of a stimulus in one modality is experienced in an additional modality. What does that mean?

Well, imagine that every time you heard a dog bark, your visual perception was spontaneously and involuntarily tinged with purple.

Or imagine that as you read this blog, you’re visually experiencing a relentless cavalcade of colours with each different letter you look at.

That happens to synaesthetes — they experience a vivid and completely involuntary cross-over between senses (and possibly cognitive systems). And there are different kinds of synaesthesia involving cross-over between different senses and cognitive processes such as language processing. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is the one where people experience a colour in association with different letters or numbers (e.g. the letter A conjures up the perception of red or is perceived as being inherently red). Sound-colour synaesthesia is the one where hearing a particular noise or even a particular note on a musical instrument causes the synaesthete to experience a particular colour. And studies have shown that these particular associations (such as A = red or dog barking = purple) generally remain steady over the synaesthete’s lifetime. So play a B-flat on a cello for a synaesthete and perhaps they see orange, then come back 25 years later and play that B-flat on a cello again and ask them what colour they experience — it’ll be orange.

But within the scope of the neuroscience of taste perception, one type of synaesthesia is just lobe-explodingly interesting: lexical-gustatory synaesthesia. When people with this synaesthesia hear or read or even think a particular word, they consequently experience a particular taste. Not just that, but words conjure up the sensation of taste and temperature and texture in the mouth (perhaps not surprising to those of you who remember when I discussed the primary taste cortex in this post and mentioned that some neurons in the primary taste cortex fire preferentially to particular food temperatures and textures as well as tastes).

It’s estimated that less than 0.2% of the population experiences this lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, so it’s pretty uncommon and it’s difficult to research when there are so few potential research participants (damn it, I find it hard to get research participants and all I need are right-handed males aged 18-40). But here are some of the word-taste associations that lexical-gustatory synaesthetes experience, according to the literature…

  • “for synaesthete JIW, the word jail floods the mouth with the taste of bacon”
  • “for SKM, the word dean evokes the precise and consistent notion of minced beef in gravy”
  • “for synaesthete JG for example, the name Adrian tastes of lettuce coated with Caesar salad dressing, and for CS, part tastes of chicken noodle soup”
  • “for JIW, the words message, college and edge all taste of pork-pie/sausage meat”
  • tambourine is very crumbly biscuit”
  • “for synaesthete JIW, words containing /k/ tend to taste of egg/yolk, e.g. accept, York, chuck, fax
  • “for example, Alessandro tasted of ‘fried potatoes’ and gave the smell of ‘burnt wood’”.
  • “for example, for JIW, the non-word spluk tastes of yoghurt, and so does its near-neighbour luck
  • “for LAS, for example, beef tastes of ‘horrible overcooked, dried-out beef’”
  • “for JIW, the word this tastes of bread soaked in tomato soup, while the name Philip tastes of unripe oranges”
  • “for participant GS, the word clue tastes of ‘cold, leftover potato scraps with congealing pot-roast gravy’”

Pretty specific, huh? And kind of, well, unpleasant in some cases. I’m in no hurry to taste congealing pot-roast gravy, never mind have it forced upon me by my brain every time I read Nancy Drew (I’ve never read Nancy Drew, but what if I wanted to? What if I wanted to?!).

You might have guessed from those little excerpts the direction in which lexical-gustatory synaesthesia research has headed — what are the specifics of a word that mean it’s associated with a taste? Are there generalisable trends within each synaesthete, e.g. do words that sound the same generate similar tastes? And what about made-up words — do they generate a taste? And if they do, why? More, tell me more!

Well, to start with, one thing is pretty straight forward — if something has a taste, the word for that something will generally taste like that something. So the word asparagus conjures up the taste of asparagus. It might be the taste of over-cooked asparagus for one synaesthete and raw asparagus with freshly ground pepper for another, but generally there is a pretty blatant link between food words and their respective food tastes.

Another of the most clear-cut findings is that sometimes there are obvious associations between parts of words and the name of what they taste like. For example, “cinema tastes of ‘cinnamon rolls’ (JG), Jackson tastes of ‘Cracker Jacks’ (both MZ and CS), village tastes of ‘vanilla slice’ (SKM), and dogma tastes of ‘hotdogs’ (DMS).” So there’s some sort of word-association going on here based on key sounds and letter groups within a word.

It also seems like particular sounds within words might be the point that the taste association clings to. That’s why message, college and edge taste of sausage meat (the /dzj/ sound in all of them and in sausage) and things with a /k/ sound taste of egg yolk to JIW.

This all kind of makes sense, but what would you predict would happen with made-up words, non-words? These do generate tastes in the synaesthete, even if the synaesthete has never encountered them before. It looks like non-words associate with a taste based on how similar they are to real words. For example, if presented with the non-word keach, a lexical-gustatory synaesthete might experience the taste that’s usually associated with beach or teach. Even non-synaesthetes can see the similarity between those words, but synaesthetes might have a broadened sense of word similarity, in that a word like spluk results in the taste that’s usually associated with luck, even though spluk and luck are technically very different words.

Despite there being very few individuals with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia to study, there are a few papers out there on the topic that suggest some very interesting theoretical underpinnings for this type of synaesthesia, and some incredibly nifty experiments have gone down. I will, however, go into that another time (well, in my next post).

In the mean time, just reflect on the fact that you are not currently tasting lumpy gravy or cold potato skins or oily salad dressing while reading this. If you were anything like the synaesthete JIW, you would be experiencing tastes in response to 56% of words from your own speech, the speech of others, inner speech and reading. An almost constant parade of tastes…

Personally, my strategy would be that I’d memorise a list of all the words that don’t generate a taste, then try to speak and think exclusively in those words, just for a little respite. Think of it as being like that guy who wrote a story that didn’t contain the letter E. So… difficult… I think… hi… how do you do today… do you… want to… stuff into your mouth… hot rich dairy product? Look down for… instructions…

Read on for the recipe for hot vanilla ice-cream in cinnamon chocolate frappé.

Hot vanilla ice-cream

250g mascarpone
85g sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste (or extract)
pinch of salt
100g water
25g Texturas Metil methylcellulose

Note: If you use a methylcellulose other than Metil you may have to experiment a bit with the percentages as the ratio of methylcellulose to liquid in order to set as a gel might be different. For example, Methocel apparently has to make up 2% of the overall mix for setting, but I’ve found Metil has to be at least 5% of the overall mix, perhaps due to having a “methylcellulose base”, which I guess implies that there is less methylcellulose in Metil than in Methocel. Also be aware of varying temperatures at which the methylcellulose enables setting — Metil and Methocel are around 50-55°C whereas others are above 60°C.

Blend mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and salt in food processor. Put water in a small saucepan, bring almost to the boil, and whisk in the methylcellulose until dissolved and the liquid goes cloudy. Add to the food processor and blend with the mascarpone mixture. (Don’t over-blend or you will aerate the mixture too much and it will break apart during cooking.) Pour into a bowl, cover in cling wrap, then place in the freezer for 10 minutes. Transfer to fridge and leave overnight for the methylcellulose to soak.

Bring a medium-sized saucepan 3/4 full of water to the boil over high heat. Scoop the mascarpone mixture with a spoon, trying to make a ball the size and shape of a scoop of ice cream. Place this carefully in a large plastic ladle. Reduce the heat to low and carefully submerge the mascarpone scoop in the water. Keep it submerged for 3 minutes. After the first minute, it will detach from the ladle (if it doesn’t, jiggle the ladle it a little so that it does). Make sure the heat is low enough so that the convection currents don’t move the scoop about too much. Once the 3 minutes are up, remove the scoop with a slotted spoon, drain as well as you can, and place it on a plate. Have the frappé mixture below in bowls ready to go (you might want to make the frappé mixture just before you start poaching the ice cream and then keep the frappé mixture in the freezer until the poaching is finished).

Cinnamon chocolate frappé

70g dark chocolate
1/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups ice

Break the chocolate into pieces and put it with the milk in a bowl. Microwave on high for 20 seconds, stir with a fork for a minute or two, microwave again on high for 15 seconds, then stir again until completely smooth. Leave for 15 minutes to cool a bit.

Place all the ingredients in a blender and pulse until the ice is broken down and you get, well, a frappé consistency.

Distribute the frappé between two bowls. Put a scoop of hot, freshly poached ice cream into each bowl and serve.

Simner, J. & Haywood, S.L. (2009). Tasty non-words and neighbours: the cognitive roots of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia. Cognition, 110, 171-181.
Simner, J. & Logie, R.H. (2007). Synaesthetic consistency spans decades in a lexical-gustatory synaesthete. Neurocase, 13(5), 358-365.
Ward, J., Simner, J. & Auyeung, V. (2005). A comparison of lexical-gustatory and grapheme-colour synaesthesia. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22(1), 28-41.

  24 comments for “Hot ice-cream success! (And synaesthesia.)

  1. October 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    I’ve always loved reading about synaesthesia, as I find it fascinating, but by GOLLY you’ve just taken my excitement to another plane. I didn’t realise that there could also be a taste-version of synaesthesia! Oh, and you know how to like to make up names for the participants? I have this intense desire to write short stories/explanations as to why those people tasted certain things with each word. You know, like, JIW used to watch Charlotte’s Web and came to see Wilbur as trapped in a cell of circumstance from which he could never escape, therefore jail tastes of bacon, etc etc.

    Also, I’m totally going to be pernickety and say that I now want you to make this recipe again as a reverse affogato, because I love affogatos. You almost tricked me because I also love cinnamon, but nope. Back to the kitchen with you, lady.

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm

      What if I make it a reverse mocha affogato — hot ice-cream in an iced mocha?

  2. ~L.K.
    October 16, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    I just started reading your blog this week and, low and behold, you have this post which interests and entertains me greatly on two fronts: the amazing-ness of poached ice-cream and synesthesia.

    I thought it was great that you mentioned it because two friends and I all have it. (Not sure if ‘have’ is quite right, but I can’t think of anything else that functions better.) One of them does have lexical-gustatory (my other friend and I have colour/grapheme).

    She says I taste like vanilla. We generally label people as colour/letter or tastes. (So a friend of mine is 2/green. Thankfully he LOVES green. ) I’m not sure if she’s really mentioned of someone who has a horribly disgusting flavour yet, although that may be my own forgetful shortcomings.

    Similar to taste with food words, colour and graphemes can coincide to make sense: B is blue or brown. G is green or grey. Y is yellow. R is red. P is purple. (R is green and P is yellow for me, though.) A can be red because of apples, which are usually depicted as red, not green or yellow ones. This can only work for English speakers, of course. For me, the alphabet was always started as A/red, B/blue, C/yellow because its always how my school or books showed them as a little kid when learning how to read.

    • Jess
      October 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm

      Thank you so much for commenting. I hope you liked the post — I had thought the chances of a synaesthete actually reading it were pretty slim, so I just aimed it at people who either haven’t heard of it before or who might not fully understand what it is, so I hope I did some sort of justice to the synaesthesia experience, even though there was so much more detail I could have gone into!

      I find its potential to tell us how the brain processes these sensory and cognitive experiences absolutely amazing. One of the people in my lab does synaesthesia research and from a neuroscientist’s point of view it’s just so interesting and we can learn so much about the brain from it if we know the right questions to ask. I’ll be writing eventually about some research I’ve seen that has tried to find if some sort of mild, sub-threshold synaesthesia is common in the overall population, as in it might not be vivid enough to be easily recognisable as synaesthesia but it still involves some sort of sensory/cognitive crossover.

      It’s interesting how some of the associations you’ve mentioned can be traced back to situations in childhood, like how in school or in books a letter and colour are often associated. Researchers looked at that with a lexical-gustatory synaesthete and found the tastes elicited by words were more likely to be tastes he’d experienced in his childhood rather than ones he’d only experienced later in life (so chocolate-related tastes were common for him but coffee-related ones weren’t). Given the amazing development that goes on during the brain during childhood, with language acquisition and everything, I guess it’s not so surprising that that’s the case, when the brain is at its most receptive and plastic.

  3. October 16, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia? I hadn’t thought about that! Oh, our brains, is there anything they can’t distort our perception of?

    Great post! I’m now both hungry for hot methylcellulose ice-cream and learned in synaesthesia! Dammit!

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm

      Sometimes I wonder why I ever believe the things my brain tells me. It’s out to distort my world! It’s disturbing how infrequently you can rely on your brain to be accurate…

  4. October 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Synaesthesia is definitely one of the most amazing things I’ve ever encountered. One of my friends had a type where whenever she heard a certain note, she saw a certain color. It was very strange to me. But so intriguing. Oh perception. How fascinating are thee.

    Also fascinating. this hot ice cream. I love how it defies all logic.

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm

      I wonder why it becomes so specific in the tone-colour synaesthesia — like how pure does the tone have to be to evoke a colour? Does it have to be a clear musical note or can it just be some sort of approximation of a tone? What sounds do elicit a colour and what sounds don’t? I’m guessing I can find the answers if I’m willing to wade through a heap of research…

  5. October 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Now this is interesting!!! I’m really intrigued, I think I’ll have to try it!

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      Investing in methylcellulose is definitely worth it — I’ve got a bunch of interesting recipes that use it either for the texture it gives things or because of its properties at different temperatures. If you end up getting some, let me know and I’ll send the recipes your way.

  6. ~L.K.
    October 17, 2010 at 10:35 am

    The post did do a great job! Its sort of an unusual thing to describe. Usually when I talk to non-synesthetes, they usually understand on a lesser scale (instead of the entire alphabet, they think of a handful of letters or words as associated with color). So my roommate always categorized subjects in school to specific colors and always needed to have each folder for the classes in specific colors. Language arts as orange, biology as pink. However it doesn’t pertain to the rest of her lexicon or any graphemes. Despite not having gustatory-color, I generally associate foods as red or white or brown. However, a lot of red foods are actually red–tomato, for instance. My fiance associate people with colors. It seems as though a lot of people I know associate things in categories that are abstract and they therefore are able to understand synesthesia well.

    I only have this to a degree, but my friend who has color-grapheme has strong personification of graphemes. I have it more so with colors while to her, it seems, the individual graphemes are very distinct from each other. (Red graphemes: A and 7 for instance, are obnoxious. They’re loud, want to be the top dog but can’t because they don’t have leadership skills at all. Blue graphemes, B and 4, for example, are serious and have good leadership. Colors similar to blue, like green and purple, and similar to blue personalities.)

    My friend with the color-grapheme also dates her colors to the alphabet from her childhood, but the colors used were very different from mine.

  7. October 17, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    I love everything about this entry. It appeals to my nerdery and love of weird-science and random facts. And it appeals to my gluttony and love of delicious things :D

    I’m fascinated by synaesthesia… I thought I had it (well, I didn’t have a name for it at the time) when I was a little kid… I could never understand why other people didn’t see particular numbers as corresponding to colours, or tastes evoking words, or letters calling to mind shapes, often completely unrelated to their ACTUAL shapes…
    I don’t experience that sort of thing as often now, but every now and then I’ll be suddenly hit by an overwhelming feeling that THE WORD ‘ARTHRITIS’ IS ORANGE!!! or something.

    Anyway, point is.. this entry is incredible and delicious. YES!

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      Haha yes! I get that one-random-word-is-a-colour thing too. It’s more common when there are a set of related words than just one single word, but sometimes I get the single words too. But for the set of related words — like in my research, I test a couple of different drugs in my experiments: methylphenidate, atomoxetine and citalopram. I have no idea how my brain came up with colour associations for them, but to me, methylphenidate is blue, atomoxetine is red and citalopram is yellow. (And placebo is grey, which isn’t surprising I guess — absence of drug = absence of colour.) Then the neurotransmitters they act on: dopamine is a purplish-blue, noradrenaline is pink and serotonin is green. I have no idea if I’ve seen these things colour-coded on a graph somewhere or whatever and that’s how I got these colours, but the colours are strong and consistent associations!

  8. October 18, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    LOL love the way you worked the end of the post back to food. Never heard of synaesthesia, but it sounds pretty intense. It must become very difficult to deal with though it sounds fascinating. Congrats on your hot ice cream breakthrough :) .

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm

      There’s some research that suggests that pretty much everyone experiences some sort of cross-over of the senses, like in synaesthesia, just not to an obvious enough extent that people are properly aware of it. I’ll blog about that at some stage — there’s a little synaesthesia in all of us, apparently… ;)

  9. October 19, 2010 at 4:47 am

    I am so dumbfounded right now. Getting my mind around hot ice cream in a cold frappe is harder than one would expect! I keep looking at your pictures, wondering, how is that cold and that warm?? How is it all staying together?? GAHH!!
    Very cool, though.

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 1:58 pm

      I keep getting tripped up when I try to explain it to people because it’s so counterintuitive… “it’s hot ice-cream… that melts… when it… cools?” Melting and cooling just don’t seem to go together!

  10. October 19, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I am so overwhelmingly fascinated by poached ice cream! I need to bite the bullet and stop being scared of methylcellulose and start playing with it. I’m unfortunately, the sort of person who not only has made cream cheese ice cream but also enjoys it. :( So I guess we can’t be friends? If it helps, I stir in carrot cake pieces to make it carrot cake ice cream? Oh well.

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm

      I have to say, I had a few disasters with methylcellulose, but I guess that was more due to technique than the chemical itself — unintentionally aerating the ice-cream mixture during blending means that it’s not solid enough to poach and it ends up flaking apart and then collapsing into a liquid. :( I added more methylcellulose and it was fine, but I think it was mainly the aeration that was the problem.

      I’m sorry I’m just jealous of people who have real cream cheese ice-cream. The previous hot ice-cream recipe was cream cheese + yoghurt so it was just disappointing because it just wasn’t ice-creamy at all. Cream cheese + mascarpone would probably make lovely hot ice-cream! Or normal ice-cream.

  11. October 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    What a great post! I came here from here from Tastespotting as the thought of hot ice cream really grabbed my interest. I was also delighted to see that it was also a post about synaethesia. While I have never met a lexical-gustatory synaesthete, I do have experience with the number form variety, which I think is lesser known (and not a big deal). I think it would be fun to be able to taste words, depending on what the word is, of course. Instead I get to see shapes and patterns when i think of time, numbers, months, years, and days of the week. Boring, but actually kind of useful.

    • Jess
      October 19, 2010 at 2:05 pm

      Yeah I haven’t seen much research about number-shape/pattern synaesthesia. I wonder what percentage of the population experiences that? I guess not many, given that even the common types of synaesthesia are still very uncommon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *