Sweet Power Tools

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

I like to work with my hands — sometimes. I love to knead dough, and I preach its importance to the bread classes I’ve taught: There’s no better way to approach bread happiness, fast, than learning through touch. But, as I’ve noted before, I’m very fond of electricity.

I got to thinking about this again after checking out “Baking Unplugged” from the library last week. I wouldn’t argue with the ingredient lists in the recipes, but the method just won’t make it in my kitchen. Creaming butter by hand sounds lovely in a quaint, rustic, pioneer way, but the reality isn’t nearly so much fun, at least not more than once a year. (I occasionally read a column about Amish life in which the writer frequently lists what her large family ate that day and in gatherings with extended family and friends. It all sounds so sweet, in that romanticized way I view farm life, until I grasp just how much beating and whipping, by hand, went into those pies, cookies and cakes. Then I beat it back to my mixer.)

When I inventory my kitchen, though, I’m struck by how few power tools I use — but those few get an incredible workout. As gift-giving time approaches, then, I offer a list of what I find invaluable.

  1. At the absolute top of the list, my KitchenAid heavy-duty stand mixer. I prefer models that lift the bowl, rather than the beaters. My mixer gets almost daily use, from kneading dough to making cookies to mixing pie crust. I also own a KitchenAid hand mixer, which gets only occasional use, but I like its beater design and its power.
  2. Close second: My Cuisinart food processors. Cut butter into scone dough, puree raspberries, grate carrots for cake, blend citrus zest into sugar, chop nuts … this also gets nearly daily use in my kitchen. I own two (neither of which are made anymore, best I can tell), as the first I bought wasn’t quite large enough for some of my baking jobs, but I prefer the simpler design of the smaller one. A 7-cup or 9-cup capacity for a smaller one, and an 11-cup to 14-cup capacity for a larger makes a useful duo. For all I’ve put them through, I’ve had to replace only one knife blade in about 15 years. The amount of time these save me, for both cooking and baking, are well worth the space they demand in the dishwasher.
  3. My induction cooktop: I’m not sure this counts as a tool, but for my baking and cooking both, I’m thoroughly in love with induction cooking. I own a Diva cooktop; it’s not cheap, but because it heats only the pan, not the air around it, it saves me bundles on air conditioning compared with my old gas Viking range. Because it doesn’t run on gas, it didn’t require a large vent hood and is infinitely safer with children around. (It always feels bizarre that you can put a paper towel between your pot and the stovetop and cook away. At most, the paper towel turns a bit dark. Splash a little oil on the stove while frying? No problem — just wipe it up without fear of fire.) And because it has 12 heat settings, I get wonderful control; at the lowest setting, I can melt chocolate directly on the heat, avoiding the dangers of a double-boiler or overheating in a microwave. I’ll never understand why induction hasn’t caught on faster.
  4. At the other end of the price range, my Escali scale also gets daily use. I strongly prefer recipes that list ingredients by weight, and this small scale makes those recipes easy. It takes up very little space, but can hold a lot. Its one drawback is that I can’t put a large bowl on it without making it tricky to read the screen.
  5. Now, way down in baking usage, comes the rest of the list. At number 5 is my Krups espresso machine (my model seems not to be made anymore). I love adding freshly brewed espresso to my baking, and this machine makes it easy. I wouldn’t argue that it’s exquisite espresso, but it’s good enough for my daily cappuccinos as well as my pastries.
  6. My Cuisinart ice cream maker also gets frequent use; with a canister in the freezer and a few simple recipes, I need never waste money on a box of ice cream from the supermarket. This is one of those things, like canning and growing tomatoes, that leaves me feeling slightly smug and very satisfyingly self-sufficient.
  7. My Braun stick blender was a wedding gift that, for nearly a decade, just sat in the back of the cupboard (that model definitely isn’t made anymore! This is a link to other immersion blenders). Now, though, I’ve come to appreciate its ability to blend small amounts fast into a surprisingly smooth puree, and to quickly emulsify a mixture.
  8. My Villaware waffle iron makes waffles for breakfast or dessert that satisfy all my family, from those who like their waffles wimpy-soft to those who crave a waffle with a light, moist interior and crisp, golden exterior. Its multiple settings and nonstick surface outperform all the other, cheaper waffle irons we’ve owned over the years.
  9. When I get to feeling guilty about topping things with whipped cream, I turn to yogurt. I love the Greek yogurt at Trader Joe’s, but I also enjoy making my own vanilla yogurt. My Salton maker gives me a quart with little fuss; the one thing I wish it had is a signal when time’s up, so I didn’t have to wake at 2 a.m. every time I make yogurt, panicking that I forgot to put it in the fridge.
  10. What’s not on this list: a toaster oven and blender. Not because I don’t use them, I just can’t recommend mine. We own a Krups toaster oven, and use it a lot, but always with fiddling to get it to work as we wish. I previously owned a Waring blender that never worked as well as it should for a “professional style” (and professional price) model. Now I own the VitaMix my parents bought years ago at the state fair; I love it, but it’s so old it’s no longer for sale, and I can’t speak to the qualities of the new models. It’s exceptionally loud, but it’s the music of the power tools that I love best.

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