Friday, February 13, 2015

Aerolatte Cappuccino Art Stencils

When I first saw the Aerolatte Cappuccino Art Stencils, my first thought was ...

Seriously. If you're not into tall frostings, or you're covering your cupcakes with a poured ganache or you feel like your smooth frosting needs a little bit of glittery sugar design ... why not use a stencil?

I mean, seriously,

What I liked is that these weren't really coffee-motif stencils (although I'm not sure that you'd stencil a coffee bean on top of your latte) but they're a little more all-purpose, with a leaf, snowflake, swirl, winky face, heart, and star. So they're just as good for cupcakes, cookies (oooh, sugar cookies!), and cakes as they are for drinks.

The stencils are made from a fairly thick plastic and come in a metal case so you can keep them all together. Just hold the stencil over whatever you're decorating and sprinkle the sugar, cinnamon, or whatever on top of the item. Simple.

They're probably dishwasher safe, but this is one of those moments when I have to say - why bother? You're probably not dripping goopy stuff through the stencil - so they're simple to wash by hand. Or just rinse.

Although I haven't tried it (yet) I'm thinking these might also be fun to use along with a food-safe airbrush. Normally when you're using an airbrush with a stencil for regular painting, you attach the stencil to the item being painted, which might be iffy when we're talking about spraying food coloring onto frosting. Holding the stencil away from would make the designs less distinct, with fuzzy edges. But then again, we're talking about cake, not about labeling containers of plutonium. If the star looks more like a breezy flower, it's not going to be terrible.

Who's it for: People who need stencils rather than free-handing designs.

Pros: Easy to clean, easy to store.

Cons: They're small, so you'll have to remember where you put them - they could disappear into the bottom of a drawer easily.

Wishes: It would be nice if there were multiple sets - seasonal, holiday, etc.

Source: I received this from the manufacturer for the purpose of a review.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Polyscience Smoking Gun

Why yes, that is smoked cream cheese!
You've seen it on TV, on those cooking shows ... but is it more than smoke and ... uh ... smoke? Does it actually make the food taste smoky?

I was pretty excited about getting my hands on the Polyscience Smoking Gun to give it a test burn. It's pretty simple to operate - just put a pinch of wood chips in the chamber, light it, and the gun sucks the smoke and send it out through a tube to wherever you want it to go.

You can hold the gun, or leave it in its stand for hands-off operation, which makes sense for most applications.

I just put the food I wanted smoked on a plate - or in a dish on a plate - and then used and upturned bowl as a cover. I slid the end of the tube under the cover, and let the smoke flow. You could also have the food inside a pot - like if you've just finished cooking and you want to add that hint of smoke flavor.

Or, for presentation, have serving plates under lids filled with smoke, so that when the lid is lifted, there's that whiff and cloud of smoke.

To be clear, you're not going to smoke bacon with this thing - it's meant for a short burning time. It's meant for adding smoke flavor, but - obviously - not for cooking or heating.

So, what can you smoke? Well, anything really. One of my favorites was cream cheese. But you can add smoke to just about anything - cheese, meat, fish, salt, vegetables. Since it's a short smoking time, the smoke flavor doesn't penetrate deeply, but since you're adding the smoke in a confined space, a lot of smoke contacts the food and it lingers there for a while until you release the lid.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much smoke flavor I got from such a short burning time.

The smoker came with chips, but they're pretty easy to find - my local hardware store sells chips for smoking, in a variety of woods that all have a distinct flavor. I haven't tried it yet, but I want to try smoking with some herbs like oregano or thyme.

And the other thing I want to try is creating a smoked cocktail. That will take some experimenting, so when I get it right, I'll have instructions and a recipe.

Who's it for: Cooking geeks, like me, who want to add a smoke flavor to foods.

Pros: Simple to use. And it's small.

Cons: The area where the burning happens gets pretty hot, so kids should be supervised.

Wishes: A recipe book would be awesome. I have plenty of my own ideas, but I'd imagine that some folks would get it and would only think of the obvious things.

Source: I received this from the manufacturer for the purpose of a review.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Re-reviewed: The Actifry vs. The Phillips Air Fryer

Quite some time ago, I reviewed the Actifry.

More recently, I reviewed the Phillips AirFryer.

They're both designed to do the same thing, but using slightly different means to get to the end. The idea - for both - is that you can "fry" foods with very little oil.

The truth is that if you fry foods correctly, they don't soak up a lot of oil. So that's not my objection to fried food. But I really don't like the idea of buying a vast quantity of oil that later needs to be disposed of. So a device that can mimic frying without using as much oil is appealing.

Both the Actifry and the Phillips AirFryer use hot air to cook the food. The biggest difference between the two is that the Actifry slowly stirs the food while it cooks, while the AirFryer contains the food in an open basket where presumably it's being hit by air from multiple directions.

While stirring sounds like a good idea, it means that you're going to have issues cooking anything that's freshly coated or breaded or battered, and the stirring also tends to break up softer foods - there were always a few french fries or potato wedges in every batch that looked like they'd been roughly handled.

Stirring could be a bonus for other recipes, though. The recipe book that came with the unit came with a few recipes where stirring made sense, like a risotto-like rice dish, but I didn't have much success with that. I live at high altitude, and rice can be tricky, so I don't know for sure if the issue was altitude or the appliance. If you live at sea level and have had success with that recipe or others that require stirring, I'd love to hear about it.

On the other hand, frozen breaded items worked fairly well in the Actifry - I lost some coating, but it wasn't terrible. Frozen breaded items worked perfectly in the AirFryer.

In the AirFryer, it would be possible to cook freshly battered or breaded items that might stick together - like freshly beer-battered fish, for example - if you kept the food separated and in a single layer which would be sort of ... inconvenient ... for large quantities. But I think it could work for, let's say, a couple breaded pork chops, leaning against the sides of the basket.

Seriously, though, you're more likely to cook chops some other way. Just because you can make something work, it doesn't mean you should. One chop, for a single person - well, that might actually make more sense.

If you're really concerned about fat on your food, the oil drips off the food and out the bottom of the basket of the AirFryer, whereas it collects in the bottom of the Actifry, and the food is constantly being stirred around in the oil.

Both the Actifry and the AirFryer are pretty large appliances for the amount of food they can cook, so neither one is going to be great for a huge, hungry family, unless you're eating in shifts or you're trying to cut down on portion sizes. For a single person or a couple, they make more sense.

Neither of these makes food that's identical to the deep-fried version, but that's to be expected. Frying is frying, and air-frying is ... well ... like a super-convection cooking method. While it's not the same as frying, it's pretty darned good. And the upside is that I don't have a gallon of oil to get rid of when I'm done.

One huge benefit of the AirFryer is that there is a temperature control, so you can cook potatoes at a lower temperature until they're done cooking, and then raise the temperature to crisp them. It also gives you a wider range of items that can be cooked properly. And since there's no stirring, you can cook things like grilled cheese sandwiches in the fryer basket.

Given my choice of one of the two, I have to say I prefer the AirFryer. It's certainly not essential kitchen tool, but it's convenient for making a basket of fries or a few pounds of wings.

Since I received my AirFryer, a few new models have been introduced, including one with a digital controls and a double-layer and one with digital controls and larger capacity. Whether the higher prices on the new models would be worth the money depends on your particular needs, but the larger capacity unit would make more sense for families.

My original review of the Actifry is here:

My original review of the AirFryer is here:

I received both of these from the respective manufacturers for the purpose of a review, which were done some time ago. I had no obligation to write about them again, but I thought a comparison would be fun.