Consider the plight of the friends and family of a kitchen geek. New video games and DVDs are easy enough holiday fodder, but Moore’s Law doesn’t quite apply in the kitchen. Still, if you’re shopping for a gift that can please both the chef and the gadget freak, don’t despair. We’ve found a few options.
The rabbit's offspring
For several years, wine lovers have enjoyed the ease of Metrokane’s next-generation Rabbit corkscrew. Though few devices have ever proven more effective to open wine bottles than the trusty single-lever corkpull (aka “bartender’s friend”), the Rabbit’s ease of use and sleek looks have been a big hit.
Metrokane has added some new members to their product family this year. The Rabbit Lever Vacuum Pump looks identical to the Rabbit corkscrew, but instead of a screw it has a vacuum seal that sucks the air out of wine bottles and tops them with a reusable rubber stopper.
Thus sealed, most wine should be storable for a couple days without turning bad, and the Rabbit pump works about as well and as easily as the Vacuvin storage pump, with which the Rabbit system is clearly designed to compete. For those who already have a Rabbit corkscrew in their drawer, the new pump is a worthy companion.
The Wing Machine is Metrokane’s attempt to re-engineer the traditional winged lever corkscrew. This type of corkscrew is not often found among wine lovers, and for a good reason: They don’t work very well. Corks easily snap and the entire thing can easily topple off the bottle in mid-pull. The Wing Machine introduces a gearshaft into the works, which certainly improves the process. Metrokane guarantees it won’t damage a cork and its Teflon-coated screw is a vast improvement on standard versions.
Corks are easier to remove from the Wing Machine than they are from standard versions, and the device is somewhat more stable. But the process is still more complex than opening wine should be; one of our testers even required a Band-Aid after tangling with a stubborn cork. And Metrokane has a tough competitor in its own Rabbit, which is almost embarrassingly easy to use.
Speaking of which: The Rabbit is now available in a full wine tool kit that includes a champagne sealer, foil cutter and some other toys. I’m not sure whether all the extra trinkets are essential, but the kit is a great gift for the wine enthusiasts in your life.
The Rabbit Lever Vacuum Pump, $30.00. The Wing Machine, $40.00. The Rabbit Wine Tool Kit, $90.00. Available at many wine retailers and online stores, including Amazon, Cooking.com and Wineenthusiast.com.
KitchenAid Professional Blender
I’ve had a KitchenAid 5-Speed Professional Blender in my kitchen for several months now. It’s the blender that made me buy a blender again. It lacks the classic lines of Waring blenders, but its construction and ease of use are in line with the exceptional standards KitchenAid has set over the years.
The blender works well at all five speeds and its motor is programmed to slowly spin up to the desired speed so that thick ingredients are blended without the explosive effect that often comes from multispeed blenders. The motor is designed to maintain consistent speeds even as the contents’ consistency changes. The five speeds are also a bonus over some competitors, like the Waring, that offer only two. And the sealed touchpad makes the base unit easy to clean.
Ice is effortlessly shredded and frozen drinks are a snap. Soups that require a fine consistency — I tried gazpacho and a carrot-ginger concoction with a cream base — are finished in moments.
My biggest frustrations are the pulse feature, which works well but takes a bit of practice, and the stainless steel container. Though I bought this model (compared to similar models with glass containers) because I liked the metal jar, it can be difficult to check the level of ingredients.
There’s not much that can be updated about blenders, but KitchenAid has turned out a worthy contender.
KitchenAid 5 Speed KSB5SS Professional Blender, $149.99. Available from many major retailers in stores; from online retailers including Amazon and Cooking.com; or from Kitchenaid.com.
Panasonic EZ Ice Cream Maker
Making ice cream at home never seems sensible. It certainly is more of a treat than just buying a quick pint and leaving it in the freezer, but the prep work and the clunkiness of most home ice cream makers make me think my time is better spent on more fruitful projects. Most home ice cream machines are unwieldy and need their cylinders pre-frozen. Though a handful of professional devices rapidly turn out ice cream and gelato for chefs, they’re beyond most consumers’ price and interest levels.
Panasonic’s new entry greatly simplifies the machine part of the process. Rather than pre-chilling the tub or running an electric cord out of the freezer, lithium batteries provide cordless power. (The batteries aren’t cheap but Panasonic claims you’ll get 25 uses before replacement.) The machine itself is small enough to squeeze next to ice cube trays and simple enough that you can be making your first batch within about 15 minutes. Though you can put it straight from the box into the freezer, your first batch will still require several hours to chill — like most homemade ice cream. The machine churns up to 1.5 pints of ice cream, generally adequate for a night’s dessert. Most parts are dishwasher-safe.
Prep work is still cumbersome: Both ice cream and sorbet require pre-cooking, and the suggested ice cream recipes are all custard style, which means lots of heavy cream and eggs. Their recipe booklet was a bit confusing in places, and a lemon sorbet came out with slightly large crystals. (To be fair, this is a common problem in making sorbet at home.) But a blueberry ice cream was excellent, even when I subbed out the recommended jam with fresh fruit.
I’m still not sure I’ll be trading off store-bought anytime soon, but if you crave ice cream you’ve made yourself, this sure helps streamline the process.
Panasonic BH-941P EZ Ice Cream Maker, $49.95, available from Sears and from online appliance retailers.
StirChef saucepan stirrer
Our sure winner in the “Actually, They Have Invented a Device for Everything” category. I mean, are we so frazzled that we can’t stir a pot ourselves?
Perhaps so. I was relatively sure this would end up among those kitchen trinkets that only seem to work when used by infomercial hosts, but it proved itself plenty useful for certain tasks.
It felt admittedly goofy strapping the StirChef to my saucepan, but it helped me cook a spot-on risotto Milanese (recipe from Rao’s, not the one provided with the accompanying booklet) while entertaining guests, answering the phone and opening wine with the newfangled corkscrews mentioned previously. A marinara sauce was on par with hand-stirred efforts.
The machine’s immersed parts are dishwasher-safe; the company says they are heat-resistant, but I was hesitant to use more than medium-low heat on the three sizes of plastic stirrers. Four AA batteries provide ample torque for turning a pot full of rice or thickening sauce. An intermittent setting allows the StirChef to turn in 12-second intervals.
The instructions could use some help. They’re often confusing and neglected some key details, like how to install the machine’s rubber spatter guard or which way batteries should be inserted. And it can be a bit messy to add ingredients once the StirChef is clamped to the side of the pan.
But anything that turns out decent risotto without 20 minutes of obsessive stirring is likely to warm a finicky cook’s heart.
StirChef, $29.99. Available at kitchen retailers and department stores.
I’d heard raves about Capresso’s high-end CoffeeTEAM Luxe drip coffee maker, which comes with a built-in burr grinder. Their CoffeeTec offers a different combination of features for the same price: a brew mechanism with an automatic timer and a separate milk frother.
To test it, I subjected the CoffeeTec to one of the most harsh, unforgiving environments on Earth for such equipment: our newsroom.
Brew quality was generally excellent. On the rare occasions we remembered to clean it after use, the reusable filter was less messy than a paper system, though it required more cleanup. Paper filters can be used, too. The automatic timer worked flawlessly.
The milk-frothing system is a handy option for coffee drinkers who want foam but don’t feel like toying with a standard steam spout. All it requires is for you to dip a plastic tube into a carton of milk (yes, straight into the actual carton) and the CoffeeTec churns out the frothy foam that most American cappuccino fans prefer. To that end, it could prove useful to coffee drinkers who prefer a drip-coffee-and-foam combo to an espresso-based drink. One coffee-eschewing editor used it solely to steam milk and was consistently pleased, though she (like me) found the foaming pieces a bit hard to clean. Finished milk temperatures were good, if slightly inconsistent.
The stainless steel vacuum carafe did an amazing job of keeping coffee hot for up to six hours without the use of the burners or hot plates that scald most drip coffee. As with the KitchenAid container, though, the opaque design makes it hard to know how much coffee is left without opening it. We also had trouble with its spring-loaded system that halts the flow of coffee so you can remove the carafe for a quick fix in mid-brew. The system’s performance was inconsistent; to crib a bit of aerospace jargon, one possibly jittery editor managed to test it to failure.
Capresso machines generally outperform their competitors, so I was a bit surprised both by the results and the lackluster feedback. “I’d buy the Mr. Coffee for $19.99 instead,” offered one colleague. “This is a cool-looking machine, but I wouldn’t put it in my house even if it were competitively priced,” said another.
Then again, journalists aren’t known to be picky about their coffee, only its caffeine content.
The CoffeeTEC certainly will fit the bill for obsessive drip-coffee drinkers, even more so if you like foamed milk. On balance, it wins high marks for durability. They may want to work out some kinks in a generally impressive roster of features. If so, we can certainly provide some willing testers.
Capresso CoffeeTEC, $199.99. Available from Capresso.com, as well as Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table and major online retailers like Amazon and Cooking.com.
A lifelong kitchen geek, MSNBC.com’s Jon Bonné; once drove from New York to Seattle with six cases of wine in the trunk. Some of the bottles are still drinkable.