Kitchen gadgets: Are they really worth it?

They'll be on thousands of Christmas wish-lists but are they works of art, indispensable bits of kit, or just useless clutter? Katy Guest road-tests the latest kitchen gadgets
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When the manufacturers of household gadgets are doing their market research, they do not generally find me among their target audience. My entire home is about the same size as some of the fridge-freezers I have seen in upmarket gizmo magazines like T3. I don't see the point of dishwashers. I have developed complex strategies around living without the benefit of an iron and I actually quite like the taste of instant coffee. So, really, my kitchen is a minimalist haven of Zen-like purity. Only one of these statements is a lie.

Taking on a menagerie of home appliances was daunting, then. As the delivery van pulled away leaving a pile of boxes neatly blocking my front door, I felt as though I had taken on a large and boisterous dog. I opened the boxes and bravely gritted my teeth. A stainless-steel pasta machine growled back at me.

The first thing I did was call my friends: who was free on Sunday for a meal based around the essential food groups of coffee, bread, pasta, ice cream and juice? They might be forced to sit on the roof, as an espresso machine about the size, shape and colour of a vintage fire engine was occupying the dining-room table, with a juicer attachment on each of the chairs. I didn't have many replies.

At the end of a week, I am bloodied and only slightly bowed. I have scalded my left hand, knocked a lump out of a finger and most of my possessions are now the colour of blueberry juice.

But I have finally come round to the idea of real, grown-up coffee and juice with bits in. And I do have an awful lot of bread.

Cuisinart Ice Cream Professional

In a recent survey of household gadgets and their cost-per-use, ice-cream makers finally overtook the mighty fondue set as the most useless gadget in the kitchen armoury. It is a good job: if everyone who owned an ice-cream maker used it more than the average once a month, Britain's obesity crisis would be much, much worse. The thing about ice cream, you realise, is that it consists mainly of cream. A lot of cream. And that's an awful lot of icy fat all churned up with sugar on top.

My Cuisinart instruction manual and recipe book suggests "Sweet Cinnamon Ice Cream", which, with 150g of soft brown sugar and 450ml of double cream in one small pot, lives up to its name. It is all too easy. You tip the ingredients into the enormous, industrial-looking machine. You press go. It makes a noise like a thousand gannets being tortured with rusty knives, and up to an hour later (45 minutes if you like it mushy) you tip out a neat metal bucket of pure, crazed indulgence. It's a good job you use up a few hundred calories hopping around the kitchen trying to detach the icy metal container from your frozen flesh, or you'd feel the need to take it for a run around the block.

The enraging thing about the Cuisinart (apart from the God-awful noise) is not so much the size of the bucket as the fact that it is exactly one-and-a-half portions bigger than any Tupperware container in my house. By the time I have stood by the sink, helpfully finishing off the "leftovers", I have to be rolled back to the machine to start again.

This time I try a frozen raspberry yoghurt. To add health, I even go Off List and tip in some toasted oats. The result is the most obscene shade of pink I have ever seen and tastes like a chilly version of the Scottish dessert cranachan, but sadly without the whisky. I don't think whisky would add health. But it might make you care less.

A friend comes round claiming that he has just had an enormous lunch and will never eat again, before downing half a tub of sweet cinnamon in two bites. He says it is better than he's had in Italy: "so creamy". Yes, I reply, guiltily. That'll be all the cream, then.

Cuisinart Ice Cream Professional, £279. For stockists, ring 0870 240 6902

Panasonic breadmaker

It is not for nothing that canny supermarkets pump out the beguiling smell of freshly baked bread to lure in the unsuspecting passer-by. There is something so comforting about bread, so wholesome and snuggly and enticingly come-hithery, that it is absolutely impossible to leave it alone. I learnt this in the early hours of one morning, having failed to set the timer and started my wholemeal loaf just before going to bed. It is true that it is lovely to wake up to the smell of bread baking. Just not at 4.30am.

The Panasonic breadmaker is deceptively simple. The problem is, it's a monster. You lift up its vast lid and offer up your ingredients into the cavernous interior. The cute little measuring jug and spoon adorably hold about half the water and salt you actually need. The machine sits on the floor, humming imperiously. It is a pleasant surprise to open the lid, a nervous five hours later, to find a small brown loaf nestling in the interior like a sleepy rabbit. So much so that you think you might just start another. Not that there's any room in the freezer for it, unfortunately, what with that being full of raspberry and oatmeal frozen yoghurt. But everyone can always eat a bit of bread, right?

That's when it all goes wrong: a Panasonic breadmaker, as grand and efficient as it is, is not prepared for the excitement of its new owner. Trying to persuade it to start on a banana and muesli breakfast loaf when it has only just coughed up your sundried tomato and parmesan only makes it angry. Its start light flashes ominously and it sits there in stony silence. You have to creep away humbly and come back later to ask it nicely. It might just open up.

It is sad, in a way, that the machine gets to do the fun part. There isn't much satisfaction in feeling the warm sides of a plastic machine as it helps the dough to rise, and adding nuts and raisins to the special "nuts and raisins" tray is not very therapeutic compared with kneading a hefty lump of dough. Somehow, though, as you peer in at your little loaf, with the telltale breadmaker hole in its newborn bottom, you can't help but feel a rush of pride. There really is something very special about bread.

Panasonic SD253 breadmaker, £99.95, available from department stores nationwide

Magimix Le Duo Plus juice extractor

In a distant memory, I am reasonably sure that there was a time in my life when I lived without a juicer. I believe there were juice-free days. I just do not know how I did it.

The juice maker has to be the greatest invention since the wheel. It is noisier, sharper and far more likely to stain things, but who cares? A juicer is a work of genius.

All this considered, it is surprising that the manual is quite so po-faced. It is full of the potential pitfalls involved in working with juice. It warns against sticking your fingers into the grinder (well, duh). It advises on the dangers of radishes. ("WARNING: as it has such a powerful effect, radish juice should only be consumed in small quantities and never on its own".) It says nothing of the spitting, hissing, spattering and incessant dripping that could seriously mar the experience if the juicer were a lesser piece of kitchen equipment. But it does make me want to live on the edge, shove carrots in up to the knuckles and drink radish juice in dangerous quantities. Even if it screws me up, man.

There are few things that cannot be effectively juiced. I know: I've tried. I have made juice in every colour of the rainbow. I have reproduced the glorious dawn of a tequila sunrise using bananas, oranges and strawberries. I have consumed more vitamins in the past week than in the rest of my former life, and exceeded the recommended daily amount of fruit by several tons. There are no helpful hints about what to do with the leftover pulp, but on the plus side I now have the most colourful compost heap in London.

Looking at it logically, the juicer is not a neat machine. Its spout is not high enough, so I can only fit a pathetically small glass underneath. It dribbles and spits like a baby (does anyone know how to get beetroot out of curtains?). Its extractor bowl will never again be clean, and its cute white spatula quickly became orange. But why would I want to clean a thing that should be in constant use? If I never stop juicing, I need never darken my washing up bowl. And I cannot get enough of marmalising vegetables. It must be a rush of radish to the head.

Magimix Le Duo Plus Juice Extractor 14206, £149, available from John Lewis

Typhoon Italian Job pasta-maker

What I like best about the Typhoon pasta-maker is that it is not nearly as huge as it looks in its box. With a ginormous espresso machine and a breadmaker the size of a house already squatting in my tiny kitchen, I could not have dealt with another monster machine. Sadly, though, that is where the sense of relief ends.

As a fan of daytime cookery programmes, I have always envied people who can make pasta. They do it on Ready Steady Cook, chattering away while churning out a perfect ribbon of golden, even dough. I just don't think I am cut out for it - not least because you need one hand to turn the handle, one hand to hold the machine down and another to catch the pasta as it scrolls out of the rollers and wriggles to the floor like a pastry-coloured snake. Maybe Delia could keep her glacial cool while smoothly turning out fettucine; I was swearing before I had even slotted the bits of kit together.

Gadget nerds, though, will love this brilliant piece of engineering. That is if gadget nerds have the presence of mind to ignore the recipe and use three large eggs instead of two. When I had worked this out, the pasta dough was amazing stuff: elastic and golden, not a bit like the shortcrust pastry mess I had imagined. It was only the technology that defeated me.

Along with its many attachments (spaghetti, trenette, lasagnette, tagliatelle...) the Typhoon comes with a vice-like device to attach it to the table. I must have the wrong sort of table. It ground holes in my worktops and took chunks out of my fingers every time it slipped and twisted, but it did not grip my pasta-maker.

With this one, I had to admit defeat. I could roll out the pasta - eventually. I could assemble the bits, with a bit of elbow grease. But anyone who can feed the filling into the special rollers without the pasta getting stuck in her hair is a better woman than I. I thought about the fresh pasta that I can buy in Sainsbury's, and wondered why on earth I would want to turn a simple TV dinner into a severe beating. And it doesn't even make penne - who needs it?

Typhoon Italian Job pasta-maker, £30. For stockists call 08456 049049

KitchenAid Artisan espresso maker

This is less a helpful kitchen gadget than an art installation. If there was traffic in my kitchen, this would stop it. Men, in particular, were gobsmacked. It is big, red and shiny, and its glossy curves just make you want to stroke it. Unfortunately you can't, because it is boiling hot and vomits steam.

But I fancy myself as the sort of person who makes real espresso. In my ideal life, I would sip it on Sunday morning in a south-facing window and a cashmere dressing gown specially designed for lounging. I am encouraged when I find a supermarket aisle entirely full of coffee, and choose a brand called Fairtrade Guatemalan Cloud Forests. This way, I can enact my barista fantasy and all the little children of the cloud forests will be saved. I will think of them on Sunday mornings as I sip my frothy cappuccino.

The Artisan espresso maker immediately bursts my bubble. I draw blood trying to screw on the single cup attachment and single-mindedly decide I will just have to drink two cups at a time. So much for my solitary Sunday mornings. There are coffee grounds everywhere, which smell good but won't look so hot when I later find grit inside my clothes. The milk frother screams as my drop of milk grows into a tsunami. There is more coffee on the floor than in the cups and my neighbours think I am committing a violent murder. So much for a relaxing cup of coffee.

I think I would like to keep the art installation coffee maker in my kitchen in order to look like the kind of person who makes perfect espresso on a Sunday morning. But nobody can ever come round: they might want a cup of coffee, and I just couldn't handle that. I resign myself to the fact that I'll never get a job in Starbucks. Those baristas deserve every penny of the small fortune you pay these days for a latte.

KitchenAid Artisan espresso maker, £519, from department stores nationwide

Tefal Vita Cuisine steamer

How hard can it be to steam vegetables? Perhaps I approached the Tefal over-confidently. Somebody who has rolled a perfect mound of spaghetti, mastered the Zen art of frothing milk and is bolstered by the energy-giving properties of 10 gallons of freshly squeezed papaya can hardly stumble at a simple task like warming up broccoli (I foolishly imagine). After all, it is simply a matter of the application of heat to chopped vegetable matter. That is cooking. Needless to say, the steamer proves me wrong.

It starts well. The steamer is a handsome machine, and I love the translucent green flourishes: they make me feel healthier already. I just can't work out how to use it. It would be OK, I keep thinking, if it would only get hot. What with that being a fairly relevant part of the process of making steam. But having switched it on, the machine just sits there. I approach it gingerly, press the "extra vitamins" button and peer under its lid. Nothing.

It is not until a friend arrives that we discover my mistake. Among its many layers and attachments, is a secret compartment. I feel like one of the Famous Five. Cripes, I've been such a fool. Around the back and underneath something cunningly designed to look attached, is the place where I should have put the water (rather than where I actually did). The circular element glares at me. I am hissed at.

This is when the steamer exacts retribution. I have cooked nothing more demanding than sliced courgettes for the soup recommended in its manual (soup liquidiser, model's own). I turn the dial to the required 20 minutes. I think, "20 minutes for courgettes?" I switch off after five minutes and tentatively remove the lid.

A cloud of steam envelops me. The skin on my left hand starts to peel away. Dropping everything, I find a scald that stings every time I plunge my hands into a washing-up bowl (which, with six pieces of hi-tech kitchen equipment to take care of, is often). In fact, the broccoli I cooked was the best I had ever tasted. As for courgettes, I agree with the steamer: they, like revenge, are a dish best served cold.

Tefal Vita Cuisine steamer VS4001, £69.95, from John Lewis

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