In which I invite the mother of all gadgets into my kitchen
I am Thermomix, hear me roar (and chop, mix, stir, heat etc). Photo: Angus Mordant
Pastry maestro Adriano Zumbo makes ganache in his. At The Apollo, chef Jonathan Barthelmess’s Greek grill in Sydney’s Potts Point, it gets turned on to spin up lemon curd for a lemon pie and a green chilli emulsion for a raw tuna dish. MasterChef judge George Calombaris has used one on the show to make a sabayon and has one in each of his restaurants. Pendolino in Sydney’s Strand Arcade has one, primarily used to whip up purees (such as a parsnip puree served with oyster blade steak), but it also gives the restaurant’s spinach ravioli a filling of the finest texture.
Yes, I’m talking about an expensive piece of kitchen wizardry. But no, it’s not just for professional chefs to play with. There are now Thermomix machines in more than 100,000 kitchens around Australia and 85% of those are in domestic kitchens — despite its $1939 price tag and the fact that you can only buy one via an in-home demo from a consultant. There are now 1,600 consultants around the country zealously preaching the Thermomix message. In fact, the Thermomix demonstration could be the Tupperware party of the 21st century, minus the games and the giveaways.
A colleague who attended a Thermomix demonstration with other keen home cooks particularly remembers the “rabbit from a hat classic” — the machine’s capacity to turn granular sugar into powdery icing sugar. Dani Valent, the author of In the Mix: Great Thermomix Recipes, has a Thermomix party trick: she makes a sorbet of cucumber, mint and lime in the machine using dry ice, creating a bubbling, Harry Potter-esque display of green smoke as the dry ice combines with the liquid. On Twitter, Melbourne “Thermomix fetishist” Bobby Green, aka @bobby_ellen, tells me that she uses hers to mill whole grains to flour.
I’m happy to buy my icing sugar and wholemeal flour and I don’t have any great desire to fill my kitchen with green smoke but when I declared here a few weeks back that the life of my vintage Sunbeam Mixmaster had come to an end, Thermomix got in touch. Would I like to borrow one of their machines to put it through its paces?
I realised there was a possibility I could be stepping into the clutches of a cult. Thermomix owners are a passionate, unusual breed. My concerns grow when I discover that Thermomix owners give their sturdy white machines names. “Mine is Therminator,” blogger and food professional @Lemonpi tells me on Twitter. “@VFleurdeSel's is Mr Darcy.”
“My thermomix name is 'arry as in Harry Potter cause it does all sorts of magic!” — that from “Kikeen” on the official Australian Thermomix recipe community website, which is speckled with LOLs and emoticons. “Mine is called YODA as it looks a lot like the Star Wars character,” adds “Sailor Girl”. “My hubby has named ours the Food-motron. He is convinced it will be his robotic dinner maker,” says “AshleaJayne”. “We use a code word "Theodora" amongst those of us who are owners when people get sick of us rabbiting on about our T/X's,” says another.
Still, I take the plunge and, within half an hour of the consultant’s arrival at my apartment wheeling two bags — one of ingredients and another holding the machine — it starts to become clear why there might be some rabbiting on about this machine, which is blender, food processor, mixmaster, cooker and spice grinder (among other things) all in one. I am suitably amazed and astonished when she shows me the sugar-to-icing-sugar party trick and then, within minutes, uses the sugar, plus fruit, ice and egg white, to create a sorbet (albeit more granita than sorbet in texture). I’m deeply impressed when, within a few minutes, she’s turned water, yeast, oil, salt and flour into a pizza dough which then goes on to double and triple in size. I’m less enthusiastic about her mushroom risotto. Nothing wrong with the texture of the rice but the “TM Vegetable Stock Concentrate” used in place of stock — a murky pasty salty vegetable puree (as seen on page 17 of the official Thermomix cookbook) does the dish no favours.
And then the consultant leaves me on my own with this masterpiece of German engineering, ominous and silent in the corner of my kitchen. I consider my needs. I need dinner. I consider the Thermomix cookbook and a recipe on page 72 for potato and leek soup. I consider the contents of my fridge and pantry. There are potatoes, onions. No leeks. A potato and onion soup will do. I ad-lib a bit more, substituting water and a stock cube for the “TM Vegetable Stock Concentrate” (the recipe calls for 2tbsp of that awful vegetable stock concentrate with 700g water) and, for the purpose of this exercise, decide to weigh ingredient quantities, in place of my more typical quantity guesswork.
A soup recipe, as spelt out by the cookbook, is a good vehicle to explain the contraption’s workings:
* first, the roughly cubed onion and potatoes go into the metal bowl and I use the inbuilt scales to weigh them. I click on the lid, then set the machine’s timer to 10 seconds and its blade speed to 7 to chop the vegetables finely.
* leaving the diced vegetables in the bowl, I set the scales to 0 and add butter until the scale’s digital reading tells me I’ve put in 30g. I click on the lid, set the timer to 2 minutes, the heating element to 100°C and the blade speed to 1. (Turning on the blade activates the machine. The machine beeps and stops when the time set expires.) I remove the lid to check how soft and “sweated” my vegetables are. Not enough. I click the lid back on and repeat the step.
* I set the scales to 0 again and pour in my water with dissolved stock cube until the machine tells me I’ve put in 700g (in Thermomix recipes, all liquid ingredients are expressed in grams). I set the timer to 15 minutes, the heating element to 100°C and the blade speed to 1. I leave the machine to its own devices and fold the washing.
* 15 minutes later, I return to lift the lid on what I hope will be a soup of some gloriousness. I test the vegetables and decide they need a little longer. I reset the machine and answer some emails. Returning 10 minutes later I’m content with the done-ness. Time to puree the soup. I click the lid back on and take the blade speed from 1 to a ferociously fast and sharp 8 for 30 seconds. Lid the lid then to consider the result: a steamy velvety puree. I toss a bit of cream in, season it, give it a bit more blade for a few seconds, then it’s done.
It’s not the best soup I’ve ever made — a raw-ish onion taste seems to cut through and of course a stock cube will never match the purity and depth of flavour of a real stock — but I’m liking its smoothness, the short time it’s taken to make, and the petite pile of washing up. A chopping board, a knife, the machine’s bowl and a spatula are the only things in the sink.
Over the next couple of weeks, I get to know the blond German visitor in my kitchen a little better. One night I use it to make butter chicken and love how the first step in the process is to use the machine as a spice roaster and grinder: whole cumin and fennel seeds in bowl, “dry roasted” for 2 minutes at 100°C on blade speed 1, then “milled” for 3 minutes on blade speed 8. A fine aromatic spice powder is the result.
My colleagues are mightily impressed by the cookbook’s “Best Coconut Butter Cake”, which I make one morning before work. From weighing the butter and sugar in the bowl and creaming it (a process that takes about 30 seconds and results in a magnificent pale textured cream), to pouring the batter into a cake tin, takes about 10 minutes, max. No, the machine doesn’t cook the cake. You’ll still need an oven for the baking. (And, in a cake recipe, where exact quantities matter, adding subsequent ingredients using the machine’s in-built scales can be perilous if you over-add; you’ll find yourself spooning out an over-zealous shower of flour, or pour of milk.)
From Dani Valent’s book I make olive bread one day and salmon confit with sorrel sauce the next. (The salmon fillets are cooked in a zip-lock plastic bag in the Thermomix’s “Varoma” steaming dish, which fits on top of the machine’s bowl. The steam can come from something cooking in the bowl, or just simmering water.)
I considered a suggestion from her publisher Geoff Slattery, a former restaurateur and ardent Thermomixer, that I try his apricot jam recipe in the machine but decided instead to deploy my sugar supplies in his chocolate mousse recipe. “You can't make chocolate mousse or custard better,” he emailed, adding at the end of the chocolate mousse recipe: “Step 9: Serve, sprinkled with reserved chocolate and a shot of Irish Whiskey on the side. Step 10 Book into Golden Door.”
I dropped off a couple of ramekins of the mousse to my next-door neighbour and he, evidently a far more sensible person than me, later told me over the back fence that it was way too rich for him. But I, in a disgraceful display of gluttony and excess, ate the finest, creamiest, lightest chocolate mousse every night for the next week and one day for breakfast.
Even still, if I had a spare two-grand, I’m not convinced I’d spend it on the Thermomix. With more time in the company of the thing I’m sure I could iron out the problems I had: the gloopy butter chicken sauce (did I over-puree it?), the dry, overcooked salmon (mea culpa, mea culpa maxima: I didn’t take into account that I was cooking one fillet not the four that Dani’s recipe called for), the mushy risotto I made on my last day with the machine (oops: I determined it needed more cooking time but gave it too much more — and, when I reset it for the extra cooking time, neglected to put the blade on the “reverse” setting which creates a stirring motion rather than a cutting one). I’m sure I would learn to adapt my own recipes to work in the machine rather than rely on the uninspiring official cookbook and I’m sure I would eventually develop an instinct for what time-heat-blade settings were necessary for any particular process.
But it’s a non-essential in my cooking life: I don’t bake much, I try and avoid sweets, I last made pizza dough in high school, and I don’t have a lot of call for ultra-fine purees and sauces. And besides, I can’t help but feel that, in the warm metal embrace of this machine, cooking is a cold distant automated thing, remote from the sensual, instinct and thought absent.