Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gadgets: Get yer chill on

You might know that I'm the Gadgets columnist over at Serious Eats. It's a heck of a lot of fun, and I get to try all sorts of fun gadgets and small appliances. And now, I'm republishing some of my recent columns here, so you won't miss anything.

These are all related to ... cold things.

Want a little ice cream (maker)?

I love home made ice cream. As soon as the weather gets warm, I start making it, and the freezer stays stocked until soup weather arrives. So I was interested in seeing how well the little half-pint ice cream maker from Hamilton Beach ($24.99) would work.

You can actually make a little more than a half-pint, but not much - about 12 ounces is the maximum. While the machine is billed as a soft-serve ice cream maker, there's no reason you couldn't make the ice cream ahead of time and stash it in the freezer to harden it.

But what's the point?

The idea is to make a quick batch of ice cream - it took about 9 minutes to churn most of the recipes I tried - and then just dive in with a spoon. If you've got the ice cream mixture ready ahead of time, that's just enough time to clear the table of the dinner dishes and be waiting with that spoon in hand.

I was surprised how well this little machine worked, considering it runs on two AA batteries, but that's plenty of power to get the job done as long as you've got a good recipe in the bowl. Try something that's too water-heavy and it freezes a little too fast - but that's true even with a full-size ice cream machine. The batteries are supposed to last long enough to make 25 batches of ice cream.

The freezer bowl has a non-stick interior, so you're cautioned not to use metal implements in it, and it all requires hand washing, but it's not much of a chore. Like any ice cream maker with a freezer bowl. you need to give it time to freeze, but I always suggest storing the bowl in the freezer for those ice cream emergencies.

While this machine isn't going to make enough ice cream in one batch for your next party, it would be kind of fun to have a few of these to use at parties, so you can let guests customize their own creations. The model I tested came with a single bowl, but there are models that include two freezer bowls, so you can make a second batch right away.

Hug Your Ice Pop

For such a simple product, I had a heck of a time testing the Ice Huggy ($6,99/2). This product is designed to hold ice pops - you know, the sweet frozen treats that come in a long plastic tube. At first, I thought it was designed to insulate the ice pop to keep it from melting from the heat of your hand. I wasn't sure how much of a problem that could be, but that's what testing is all about.

First, I tried to find a volunteer mom who would be willing to test the Ice Huggy with her kids. I thought that would be easy, but either the kids were too old or too young for ice pops, or the moms made their own frozen treats. Hmmm ... not quite as big a market as I expected.

So I went looking for ice pops that I didn't have to buy in a big box and finally found them at a little local store that carries items the big chain stores don't. That mission accomplished, I immediately understood the real problem. Those things are cold! Just carrying them to the register, my delicate ladylike hands were getting a serious chill.

The Ice Huggy acts as an insulator, but it's not protecting the ice pop, it's protecting hands from the chill. That makes more sense. Kids aren't going to want to hold something that's super-cold for very long. The Ice Huggy is made from a soft, thick, squishy material that no doubt is a good insulator.

So far, so good.

The ice pop slips into the Ice Huggy sleeve that stretches a bit to hold the ice pop snugly. There's a flap that secures with Velco so you can fold the Huggy down as the ice pop gets shorter as you eat it. It's a really good concept. Unfortunately, the ice pops I bought were fatter than the Ice Huggy was designed to hold. It was like trying to put a toddler's sock on an adult foot.

Maybe there are regional or brand differences in ice pops and the ones I picked up were mutant super-large versions. It wouldn't make sense for these folks to make a product that doesn't fit the major brands of ice pops, so I have to assume that these would fit most of the ice pops you might buy.

But the story doesn't quite end there. I, uh ... acquired an adult version of the ice pop that is essentially a frozen margarita. And the ice pop fit perfectly into the Ice Huggy and did a fine job keeping my hands protected from that evil frozen margarita. So I guess I can use them, even though I don't have kids.

Here's the Scoop

The Zeroll ice cream scoop ($14) has been around for a long time - in fact it's celebrating its 75th anniversary. It must be doing something right to be essentially unchanged for all that time.

Rather than being a disher-style scoop, this one is a one-piece unit with no moving parts. Well, unless you consider the sloshy stuff in the handle a moving part.

The special feature with the Zeroll scoop is that the liquid in the handle is supposed to transfer the heat from your hand to the scoop, which then makes it easier to scoop hard ice cream. And there is definitely heat transfer going on. Leave the scoop in the ice cream container and you'll have a frosty-cold handle and a puddle of melted ice cream around the scoop.

But how does it work when it's actually scooping ice cream? Here's the deal. If your freezer temperature is set to "surface of Pluto" and your ice cream is tooth-chippingly hard, this scoop is not going to glide through it like a hot knife through butter. But if your ice cream is just reasonably hard, this scoop will make the job a little easier. You still need to put some effort into harder ice creams - it's a scoop, not a magic wand.

Since there aren't any moving parts, this scoop is pretty much indestructible, and the big handle is easy to hang onto. The only downside is that this scoop isn't dishwasher safe. The scoop is aluminum, which doesn't behave well in the dishwasher, and the heat of the dishwasher can make the liquid in the handle expand too much and leak out. But washing it by hand isn't a big deal since it's all smooth surfaces.

An ice cream scoop isn't an earthshaking gadget, but this one's got a lot going for it. Even if you don't find that the heat-transfer feature makes any difference, it makes a nice-shaped ice cream ball and it's sturdy enough to last nearly forever.

Making Clear Ice

Clear ice is the holy grail of the drink blogger and maybe the beverage geek as well. One answer is to buy ice, but where's the challenge in that? The true ice aficionado wants to make that ice at home from scratch, right? 

I've heard all kinds of theories on making clear ice. Boiling that water first is supposed to help, but it's not the complete answer.

When I got my frigid paws on the Polar Ice Tray ($18.99) I was intrigued. Here's a simple non-mechanical gadget that purports to make clear ice. No voodoo, no batteries, no stirring required. Just a few parts you assemble and put in your freezer.

The one I tried was the triangle-shaped tray. The shaping section can be left out to make one giant clear cube, if that's your preference.

The idea is that the bright-colored insulating piece forces the ice to freeze from the top down, which forces impurities in the water downward through holes in the bottom of one section and into another section. When you take it all apart, the ice in the top compartment is supposed to be clear while the ice in that second section should be cloudy.

Does it work?

Heck yeah. Or, mostly. The first time I tried it, there was a little bit of white ice at the bottom of my pretty clear triangular cubes.

Then I thought well, hmmm, if it's all about freezing slowly from the top down, how about starting with warmer water? That did the trick. My triangles of ice were clear and there was cloudy ice in the bottom tray where it belonged.

On the plus side, this is a very cool geeky toy. On the downside, it would take you a long time to make enough ice for a party. But for a few perfect cubes for a photo or a few drinks, this crazy thing does the trick.

That's enough for now, I think.

Disclaimer: I was provided with products for the purpose of reviewing these items on Serious Eats.