If you've never heard of the Thermomix, you're not alone. It's never been advertised and it isn't sold in stores.
Yet it's inspired two very different cults: one of home cooks devoted to its versatility and convenience, and another of Michelin-starred chefs such as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, and Rene Redzepi, who rely on its precision.
Chef Blumenthal has even named the Thermomix one of his top six kitchenware essentials. He should know: One of his signature dishes, Ballotine of Anjou Pigeon, features a blood pudding stirred and heated for four hours in a Thermomix. When I tried it at his restaurant, The Fat Duck, two years ago, I didn't know how it was made, but I was sufficiently moved to write, "What makes this dish a masterpiece, however, is the black pudding, which resembles a perfect hollandaise in texture."
Any gadget that can turn pig's blood into hollandaise at the press of a button inspires me, too. I have craved a Thermomix almost as much as I crave more of Heston Blumenthal's menu.
What is it, exactly? If you believe the hype, it's a 23-in-1 multitasker - an unassuming German-engineered, French-manufactured food processor that touts serious benefits. Its high-performance motor and titanium blades chop, mill and liquefy with terrifying ferocity. Its body contains a scale accurate to within five grams and an element that heats in 10-degree increments to just above the boiling point.
The Thermomix is designed to perform a number of functions every cook needs (blending and slow cooking), a few specialized functions some cooks need (yogurt making and steaming) and yet more arcane functions only survivalists need (grain milling and butter churning).
Of course, functionality comes at a price. And for the current TM31 model, that price is $1,600.
Can any machine live up to that hype - and price tag? I spent two weeks testing the TM31 to see whether it makes kitchen life easier and tastier.
The Hollandaise test
Nothing challenges kitchen skill like egg-based custards and sauces. The Thermomix cookbook makes it sound simple: Add egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper, affix the butterfly attachment, and cook for eight minutes at 90 C at low speed. I balk at the temperature - 90 C sounds like a recipe for lightly scrambled eggs - and lower it to 80 C, walk away, and return to the best hollandaise of my life - dense and creamy with nary a coagulated protein in sight. What's more, I can hold it for a few minutes at a lower temperature while I scramble to toast a croissant and sauté spinach for eggs Florentine.
The mayonnaise test
I invite my friend Ryan, a kitchen amateur. Who better to test a convenience appliance than a bachelor, the ultimate convenience cook? Ryan only seriously cooks for his girlfriend, and he does that for the same reason most men cook for women: to woo them. This time, the cookbook recipe leads to disaster: Instead of mayo, we've concocted a soupy mess. We try to rescue it using another egg yolk before feeding the entire mixture to the compost bin. My plan to convince Ryan of the Thermomix's powers of seduction fails.
The risotto test
Tales of a mythical machine that would heat and stir my favourite dish are what first piqued my interest. In this case, myth is reality. I've now made stupendous risotto three times: creamy, perfectly cooked rice that tastes intensely of the stock in which it's cooked. Better yet, after peeling an onion, then chopping and sweating it in the Thermomix, I add rice and wine and play video games for 15 minutes while anticipating a remarkable supper.
The dessert test
The Thermomix can't chill, but it's powerful enough to turn a package of frozen fruit into a fine paste in seconds. Experiments with just a little sugar and either mango or mixed berries are a success. The sorbets taste more intensely fruity than anything produced from a conventional base in an ice cream maker. For an encore I make zabaione, the light, luscious, fortified-wine spiked custard. It's a huge pain in the ass to make conventionally - after many minutes of whipping over a double boiler, you and your sore wrist may enjoy a tremendous custard or curse your sweetened scrambled eggs. After the mayo debacle, I turn to the Internet and intuition for a recipe. After several minutes doing nothing more intense than fretting over whether I've nailed the timing and temperature, I pour a sublime zabaione that tumbles into a martini glass in sweet velvety ribbons.
The fish test
In an age of sleek stainless steel, the Thermomix is still dressed for the eighties in an off-white plastic case. At least the flying saucer-shaped Varoma steamer attachment somewhat updates the look. Better still, after blending a sauce of garlic, chilies, coriander root, lime juice and fish sauce in the Thermomix, I fill it with water, attach the Varoma, and steam a whole snapper. The fish turns out moist and tender, and a sprinkling of the sauce and some chopped coriander make a lovely Thai lunch.
Mayo disaster aside, the Thermomix lives up to the hype and then some. Yes, it's possible to make lousy food in the TM31 - just use the accompanying cookbook. On the other hand, I haven't used another piece of kitchen gear that makes it as easy to produce so many different dishes so well.
Still, would I spend $1,600 on any counter-top kitchen appliance? The heart of the Thermomix sales pitch is that it replaces enough small appliances to justify the expense. A high-end Vitamix blender alone costs almost $600; electric butter churns and grain mills each run over $100. For an unstocked kitchen, the Thermomix makes a lot of sense. Likewise for the harried parent who needs to get good food on the table quickly after a long day of work.
The problem is, I've already got a blender, a food processor, an ice cream maker, a digital scale, and a slow cooker.
Yes, I am tempted to replace them all with a Thermomix. (There is that space in my kitchen cupboard I've been saving for a butter churn.) But unless I'm making blood pudding every night, I'll probably wait until the day when a few of those gadgets need to be replaced. It can't come soon enough.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Rating the Thermomix
Ease of use: 4 out of 5
Though not intuitive, this is a machine that anyone familiar with a blender can use to produce quality food after a glance at the manual. Performs most kitchen prep tasks in seconds.
Quality of dishes: 4 out of 5
Custards, fruit sorbets and risotto are spectacular. As with any kitchen tool, the quality of the final product still correlates to the amount of thought and effort put into it.
Aesthetics: 2 out of 5
Function must have dictated form, because the plastic body of this machine could use a makeover.
Utility: 5 out of 5
Despite claims, the Thermomix is not a flawless substitute for some gadgets, like ice cream makers and rice cookers, but it's close, and it includes functions not offered by any other appliance.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
It's not perfect, and the price is steep, but the Thermomix largely lives up to the hype. Casual cooks who only occasionally use a food processor should pass. But as the most versatile and precise small appliance on the market, it's good value for gearhead foodies or overburdened cooks on the lookout for a time saver.
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