If ever there were a time to experiment in the kitchen, it’s now. With a second lockdown and pending tier restrictions across the nation set to confine many of us to our homes, the least we can do is treat ourselves with a restaurant-quality meal – and brush up our culinary skills ahead of cooking Christmas dinner.
We tested top gadgets that promise to help beginners and connoisseurs concoct astoundingly good dishes – from ice cream so good it’s described as ‘pure evil’, to golden boulangerie-ready bread, and melting-yet-crackling Neapolitan-style pizza.
The smart pizza oven
You’d think that a separate pizza oven – and not one you built in Lockdown #1 in your large garden with your own home-made mortar and hand-fashioned bricks – was a complete waste of time. As in, most people have an oven conveniently situated under the hob so you can just use that to heat up a Margherita. At least, that’s what I thought. How wrong I was.
My pizza re-education came in the form of a Sage Pizzaiolo which looks somehow reminiscent of an Airstream caravan – all curves and shiny chrome. Luckily, it is a lot smaller than an Airstream – about the size of a mini-break suitcase and can sit on the work surface, or the kitchen table, or anywhere else. All you need is a plug and away you go.
A wood-fired oven, or so I learned, heats in three ways: conductive, radiant and convective. And the Pizzaiolo does the same. The conductive heat comes from the bottom and means your pizza base will crisp underneath. The radiant heat from above heats up the crust to ensure it has what the Pizzaiolo’s designers call ‘leopard spotting’ – the darker flecks of burned dough that make a proper pizzeria offering different from a supermarket one. The convective heat warms the whole thing up without burning the middle of the topping so it doesn’t char. Even at 400 degrees C. All this means that your pizza can be cooked in just two minutes.
We are sadly not expert pizzaioli in my family. But once our trusty Thermomix had taken us through the dough-making process, all we had to do was flatten out the gluey mix, spread on a thin layer of tomato and set to with the toppings. Which in my children’s case meant insane quantities of mozzarella. Our pizzas were not Neapolitan classics. Any proper Italian mamma would have fed them to the dog, but for a fast, theatrical, entertaining meal they were very hard to beat. I became quite proud of my professional twist of the wrist as I slid the raw pizza off the steel paddle and into the oven.
We even got a little creative and tried a recipe for khachapuri which is a Georgian equivalent of a pizza – basically a boat made of dough filled with a mixture of feta, halloumi and mozzarella and topped with an egg. This is not diet food and if you ate too much of it you’d have trouble fitting through the door, but it is insanely delicious. Whatever the Pizzaiolo might have thought of them, it kept its feelings to itself and cooked them to perfection.
Sage Pizzaiolo, £699.95, sageappliances.com
The Sous Vide
The technical aspect of a Sous Vide had always intimidated me; the machinery, the vacuum sealing, the vat of bubbling water with contraptions bobbing away within, like some sort of science project. The endeavour seemed somewhat too Heston Blumenthal for my kind of cooking, which is more ‘contented kitchen pottering with a glass of wine in hand’ than industrial levels of precision. But precision is exactly what a Sous Vide specialises in; whereas a steak under a grill can under or overcook, a Sous Vide functions by cooking it at a precise temperature for a period of time so that the end result is restaurant worthy.
Once the kit was unpacked and assembled – it certainly required a degree of patience and attentiveness – the cooking process wasn’t as complex and scientific as I had feared, and actually became part of the fun. Our device from Anova comes with instructions to download an app, which we duly do to find a host of recipes as well as the ability to control the temperature from our phones.
Once your recipe is vacuum-sealed using the Anova Precision Vacuum Sealer – we opted for rosemary and butter potatoes and steak – you attach the Precision Cooker to the side of a pot of water and wait for it to rise to temperature, where it will stay exactly until your dish is done.
The result? A depth of flavour that you don’t get with other methods of cooking. The vacuuming process combined with the heat seems to create an intensity; even the relative blandness of potatoes, smothered in butter and rosemary, took on an earthiness that’s lost in other ways of cooking.
My other half, a meat eater, confirmed that his steak was the best he’s ever cooked at home, and while I was reticent about the difference a Sous Vide could make to vegetarian cooking, the dishes we tried were restaurant quality. Buttered, garlic smothered asparagus was fresh yet indulgent, and corn on the cob wonderfully tender.
A Sous Vide recipe for Southern Creamed Corn is now a new favourite, although our waistlines won’t thank us. The kitchen counter space might have to be negotiated, and be sure to invest in the reusable plastic seals instead of single use, but if you’re curious about taking your cooking to a more professional level, a Sous Vide is a feather in your chef’s hat. Stephen Doig
Precision Cooker, £149, anovaculinary.com
The ‘wine by the glass’ gadget
Being single in lockdown is not the best time to hanker after a glass of wine. While I can quaff champagne until the cows come home, its bubble-free cousin is something I drink rarely, and when I do, it is just by the glass. Add to this the fact that the only bottles in the house have come in the form of gifts and are infinitely more expensive than any I would usually buy, and it is easy to understand why potential cravings have to be put to one side.
When it was suggested that I try the Coravin, I have to admit that I was hesitant. I assumed it was a professional gadget aimed at restaurants and bars, and wrongly jumped to the conclusion that it would be a complicated machine that took up more space than it was worth. How wrong I was.
A system for accessing wine without uncorking a bottle, it relies on a needle inserted into the cork (there is an alternative contraption for screw caps) through which the liquid is poured. A small gas cylinder pumps argon into the space left by what has been consumed, preventing the remainder of the bottle from oxidising. After decanting the required amount, the needle is removed, the tiny hole in the cork closes, and the excess wine can be stored for months or even years in perfect condition.
Never one to read a manual, a 90-second video provided more than enough instruction. The system was ridiculously simple to use, cleaning was beyond easy and the gadget is hardly bigger than a can opener, so no problem to store.
In one weekend the Coravin has converted me. From something I didn’t know about a month ago, I have become somewhat evangelical about it. No need to drink more than wanted or to waste a drop, it could also be the answer to many household debates between red or white. Tracey Llewellyn
Coravin Model Six wine preservation system, £329, coravin.co.uk
The ice cream maker
Smeg gadgets have a wonderful retro ’60s space-age feel to them, but are surprisingly easy to use. Excitingly, the classic stand mixer (from £399) now comes with an ice-cream maker attachment.
With festivities on their way, what could be better than a spot of home-made ice cream to accompany a gooey dessert or a sorbet to follow a rich Christmas supper?
I have never been one to get bogged down in boring old manuals and have a slightly cavalier attitude to instructions. But that’s ok because the ice-cream maker was really stunningly easy to navigate. The retro stand mixer (mine is an attractive powder blue) comes with all its normal whisks and choppers, but also now boasts a large insulated bowl for ice-cream. You put the bowl in the freezer for a day and then you’re ready to crack on.
I turned some leftover bread-and-butter pudding into absurdly moreish ice-cream with the addition of some raisins and a bit of brandy. You just click the ice-cream bowl into the big silver mixing bowl, add a special magnetised attachment, and away you go.
The mixer quietly churns away and you have over a litre of proper creamy ice-cream in half an hour. My daughter, 13, who is even less keen on instruction manuals than me, used her weekly supper-making turn to create a strawberry ice cream of such pure evil it could have come from Grom, the best gelateria in Florence.
I look forward to many happy hours listening to the Smeg whirring away in the background. Sasha Slater
Smeg SMIC01 ice-cream maker attachment, £99.95, smeguk.com
The coffee machine
It’s the little things we miss the most. Like the daily pleasure of a takeaway coffee. In lockdown 1.0 I was the envy of my colleagues because my local bakery remained open, allowing me to pop in – at a safe distance – for an oat-milk flat white, a daily dose of ‘normality’.
But I wonder how safe that actually is; plus it’s hardly an essential trip. So instead I’ve been putting my rusty barista skills, learnt as a teenage waitress, to use on the La Marzocco Linea Mini, a professional-style Italian espresso machine designed for home use.
Don’t be fooled by the word ‘Mini’: it’s a hefty piece of kit that requires substantial space; plus room for the separate coffee grinder, tamp mat, knock box and various caboodle. At 32kg, lifting it is a two-person job. With its angular, baby-blue exterior (clients can customise the colour), it looks like a funky retro-style robot, as Instagrammable as a Dalgona coffee.
Reading through the 28-page instruction manual, it quickly became clear that the £4,000 Linea Mini is for true coffee aficionados. Set-up is easy: fill up the water filter (it could also be plumbed in), plug in and turn on, but the art of making the perfect espresso is rather more involved.
There’s plenty of information on adjusting the grind setting and playing around with the dose, yield and time, plus a La Marzocco expert is on hand virtually to troubleshoot. It helps that I’ve had experience of using this type of machine before, even if it was over a decade ago.
Eventually we settle on the combination that delivers just the right buzz and start trying (mostly failing) to perfect latte art, as well as making some killer espresso martinis. The machine comes with an app that acts as a remote control so we can pre-brew in the mornings and adjust the temperature via our phones.
The Linea Mini requires significantly more investment – money, time and effort – than pod-taking espresso machines, but if you’re seriously into your coffee, the results and sense of achievement are worth it. Although I started to miss my daily interactions with my pals at Gail’s, I imagine after a week with the Mini my coffee snobbery had intensified somewhat. Sarah Royce-Greensill
Linea Mini espresso machine, from £3,690, lamarzoccohome.com
The new-generation juicer
For the uninitiated, a Bluicer is a combined blender and juicer – a perfect space-saving gadget that is surprisingly easy to use. Beyond whipping up delicious soups and quickly making smoothies, its design means that freshly made juice can be filtered directly into the blender without the fuss of having to pour liquids and pulps into different containers, potentially creating a mess.
The extra wide feed chute of the Bluicer means you can toss whole fruits into the machine making it the ultimate time saver. When I chucked in three apples, all the unwanted bits simply shot into the three-litre ‘pulp bin’.
Ingredients were quickly blended into a smooth consistency even when working with frozen fruit while the five preset programs, and 10 speed settings (most blenders usually have about two or three) meant that I could always find the perfect speed for the consistency I was looking for too. And, the ‘cold spin technology’ prevented the colder, refreshing drinks from getting warmer in balmy weather.
As someone who loves making food and drinks from scratch, this machine has opened up more possibilities to what I can make, especially in the winter when we’re all in need of added nutrients to keep colds and sickness at bay. Precious Adesina
The 3X Bluicer™ Pro, £369.95, sageappliances.com
The herb garden
What seems more luxury right now than a bit of outdoor space: somewhere to get a breath of fresh air while tending to the veg you planted at the beginning of the first lockdown? If like me, you aren’t fortunate enough to have a garden, but are dying to see how green-fingered you are, what can you do? Either start growing tomatoes on your windowsill, only for them to be blown off as soon as a northern gale hits, or invest in a ‘Smart Garden’.
Click and Grow’s ‘Smart Garden’ is designed to take care of watering, light and nutrients, to make it possible to grow plants 365 days a year in any household. There are three versions: Smart Garden 3 (99.95 euros) is smaller and holds three pods; Smart Garden 9 (199.95 euros), which holds nine pods, or if you’re really serious, you can go for Smart Garden 27, which is a multi-layered 27 pod super garden (599.95 euros).
Each garden comes with a complimentary set of pods (lettuce, basil and tomatoes), and extra pods cost £10 for three. You can choose from a vast range of flowers and vegetables, including dwarf peas and sweet bell peppers and moss roses.
The ‘garden’ arrived in a flatpack box, and the assembly was ridiculously simple, everything clicks into place, and the design is so sleek that the only problem I came across was where to put my garden to show it off as much as possible. Once assembled, put the pods in the designated holes, fill the tank with water and switch it on (it needs to be plugged in, so best to put it near a socket). The light is on a timer cycle of 16 hours on and eight hours off.
And that’s it; the garden does the rest, the lighting system recreates sunlight and the water in the tank is absorbed by the plants when they need it. It takes one-to-two weeks to start seeing shoots appear, and plants should be ready in one-to-two months, with varying life spans of two-to-six months depending on the produce, meaning that Smart Garden enables anyone to eat fresh vegetables even if they have nowhere to grow them.
And as the Smart Garden is meant for life, everything is recyclable and built to last. Once you are done with your plants, you just buy more pods, and start the whole process again. Simplicity at its best. Helen Gibson
Smart Garden, from 99.95 euros, clickandgrow.com
The Bread Maker
Appliances from Sage are generally, in my opinion, joyously user-friendly and fuss-free. The Custom Loaf is the brand’s top-of-the-range bread maker and comes with a downloadable recipe book, which walks you through the creation of everything from traditional white bread to gluten-free loaves and pizza dough. That said, there’s not much that you actually have to do – the machine takes the brunt of the work without complaint.
Bread makers aren’t the most aesthetically stimulating elements in one’s kitchen, but this brushed stainless steel block (it’s 41cm long) will at least blend in with the surroundings. The onscreen display corresponds to the recipe book, so all you have to do is twiddle the dial to the correct type of bread; select a light, medium or dark crust; choose the loaf size, which ranges from half a kilo to 1.25 kilos; and press start.
While the bread maker can remember up to nine different recipes, there is also a custom setting if you want to get technical. In the interest of keeping it simple, I follow the instructions for a traditional white loaf and it comes out golden, fresh and artisan-looking.
Standout elements include the collapsible kneading blade, which folds away after whipping up the dough to stop a hole being created in your loaf (although user reviews suggest that it has a habit of breaking after six months of use), and the light button, which illuminates what’s going on inside through a little window.
By far the best setting is the delay start, which means you can pre-set the machine to wake you up with bread in the morning. We might not be able to travel, but at least we can wake up to the smell of a French boulangerie. Just remember to use an oven mit when pulling the tin out. Eilidh Hargreaves
The Custom Loaf, £249.95, sageappliances.com
The outdoor pizza oven
I gave up on making pizza at home years ago. No matter how hot the oven – and I could crank mine up to 250 celsius – the results were miserably short of the melting-and-yet-crackling Neapolitan-style pizza. And sure, I’ve seen giant brick domes at other people’s houses, and even the little Ooni numbers perched on a patio, but I hadn’t yet succumbed to installing a wood-fired oven at home.
They are, however, the only way to cook a pizza properly, thanks to the way in which high heat is emanated from both above and below, simultaneously. Apparently everyone knows this already – pizza ovens are screamingly hot right now.
The most beautiful one you can buy is the DeliVita clay oven, which has an Italian-sounding name but is made in Yorkshire. The black model, which I borrowed for a week, looks like a glace-iced igloo and exudes enough Italian design cred to remain fully on display on the terrace, if the weather permits. (It also comes in red, olive green and blue – or bespoke colours.)
At 70cm diameter and 30kg I found we could easily move it around the garden; the manufacturers advise it should be used on a tabletop outdoors. It didn’t seem particularly dangerous either, particularly since the outer fibreglass shell remains cool even as the interior reaches 500c.
One of the reasons you may want to move it around is the smoke. It is after all a wood burner; for the first 20 minutes or so of igniting the oven with small pieces of seasoned timber, a grey plume spirals around. After that, it becomes fume-free. But to save the wrath of the neighbours I took to shifting the oven to different spots of our city garden.
What of the cooking experience? It’s easy enough to light, especially if you watch a few of the tutorial videos created by the company first. I don’t have an infra-red thermometer, so had to learn to guess when it was really hot, but with a bit of barbeque experience that’s not difficult. A pizza peel – a sort of flat shovel – is essential for coaxing your creation into the clay interior.
Once internal temperatures are peaking, after 25 mins or so, you slide your pizza inside, hopefully without it either bundling up into a horrible melted mess on the hot clay floor, or shooting straight to the back where white-hot logs would cremate it. This takes a bit of practice. But once I got the knack, the results were supreme, and I was soon serving up a succession of pizzeria-standard Margaritas and Napolis almost better-looking than the oven itself. Susie Rushton
Pizza oven, from £1,195; delivita.co.uk
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