With all the bad economic news swirling around us and too often hitting close to home, who couldn't use a little fun? Feel like a big kid again using this Cuisinart Mix It In® Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine, available in breast cancer awareness pink or standard white. Prices range from $50 if you can find a factory refurbished one like I did at a Big Lots store, or $100 brand new with three-year warranty (as of this writing).
Recommend this product?
IT IS WHAT IT IS — AND NOT WHAT IT'S NOT
Contrary to the Epinions description and many other erroneous statements on Internet sales sites, this is not an ice cream maker. Hard-packed ice cream machines do not come with a dispensing spout, a cone holder or a condiment dispenser. The Cuisinart badge on the front is the first tip-off to what the machine can and cannot do. It is foremost a "Soft Serve Ice Cream Maker". And because it contains no internal refrigeration, the entire process relies on getting the double-insulated 1.5 quart bowl solidly frozen in the back or bottom of your freezer. Freezing the bowl can take as long as 24 hours or as few as 15 depending on the type of freezer you have, where the temperature dial is set and whether you frequently open the freezer door. Therefore, this isn't the most spontaneous of kitchen electrics. There is one simple workaround if you've got the room, however: Store the bowl in the freezer so that it is always ready at a moment's notice.
BY THE BOOK
Once you master the art of soft serve, the possibilities are endless. Cuisinart's Simple Vanilla recipe calls for sugar, milk, heavy cream and vanilla extract — which for the amount produced is a savings over a similar quantity of soft serve purchased at an ice cream shop. Given my propensity for experimentation in the kitchen, I am already toying with the possibility of whipping up my own orange 50/50 variation using vanilla and an orange extract sitting in my kitchen cupboard. But first things first: There are enough dissatisfied owners out there to remind me to stick with the basics in the included recipe book before I become overly creative. After all, there's no way to determine if the machine or the recipe is faulty unless you go by the book — at least initially.
The positive aspects of this machine are pretty much self evident. For one, there aren't many products on the market that will dispense soft serve into a cone, or top your sundae with your choice of one of three toppings, all of which are attractively arranged on the top left side so that you get to look at them through clear plastic receptacles. If you time the soft serve process right — which takes anywhere between 15 minutes and 30 minutes to complete — you will enjoy a tasty treat whose only limitations are the quality of the recipe you are using.
In my first attempt to use the machine, I stuck with the Simple Vanilla recipe, but based on other product reviews I reduced the sugar from 3/4 to 2/3 cup and still felt it came out plenty sweet (probably will try 1/2 cup granulated white sugar next time around, in fact). In addition to the sugar, the Simple Vanilla recipe calls for two cups of cream, 1 cup of whole milk and 1-2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract. Because vanilla is my favorite flavor I split it between conventional vanilla and French vanilla. Yum! Yum! Yum! The results were just as creamy and much lighter in consistency than the soft serve ice cream shop variety. Interestingly, though it was lighter and fluffier, my soft serve cone didn't melt any faster than a store bought one.
Clean up on this unit involves roughly five plastic parts, including a drip tray, freezer bowl, the churning paddle, the removable dispenser lever and the condiment chute. There is a removable lid on top for both the bowl area on the right and the condiment receptacles on the left. But for the initial unpacking and setup, you don't need to wash the condiment receptacles unless you are switching out your toppings. Note that the plastic parts are not dishwasher safe.
There are some caveats that come along with novelty electrics like this. Although they are high in kid appeal, they are not for the zap-it-in-10-seconds crowd. It takes some patience to make this machine deliver the type of results you want. And there are some limitations, too. For instance, there is no way to control the rate at which the toppings dispense. You depress one of the three tabs to dispense, and if you are dispensing into a dish they mix right into your ice cream. Try the same with a cone and half of the topping ends up scattering all over. Secondly, if you like your soft serve firm, that leaves you with a narrow window of only 5-10 minutes or so before the soft serve thickens so much that it will no longer exit the machine when you pull down the dispensing lever. In the event that you overshoot this timeframe, the user guide says to scoop it out of the bowl. To avoid this scenario, an all-too-easy mistake is to begin dispensing the soft serve too early. The result, as many negative reviews on the Internet will attest to, is a thin, milkshake consistency. Therefore, the good news and the bad news are essentially one and the same: Because there is no timer operating the motor, only you can control exactly what you get. Conversely, you will obtain different results each time unless you are fastidious about timing it right.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
For best results it is necessary, beginning about 15 minutes into the churning process, to begin watching the contents of the bowl like a hawk through the cut-out opening in the lid. Once the consistency looks right you have only minutes to serve the contents — a full batch purportedly yields about 10 half-cup servings — by depressing the dispenser lever. The secret to getting this right is to dispense a small bit into a cup and if it doesn't hold its form simply throw it back in the bowl through the opening in the top of the lid. If it does have that soft serve like texture, you are ready to serve. It is important to have the dishes, spoons and/or cones out and ready to go before the machine has been running for 15 minutes. After all, much of the appeal of this machine over a traditional ice cream maker is to dispense into a sundae dish or ice cream cone. Waiting too long pretty much negates this experience.
Having worked briefly in a yogurt shop in high school, I was prepared for the reality that these machines are not foolproof and entail a bit of trial and error (to make that soft serve swirl cone, for example). Hence, there are people for whom this soft serve maker is not suited —principally those who lack patience in the kitchen or who would rather eat hard packed ice cream than soft serve. Therefore, I would not recommend this type of product as, say, a wedding gift (and certainly not without a gift receipt). Not everyone will appreciate the novelty or the time and effort involved in making soft serve at home.
For those that prefer ice cream to soft serve, this machine will, in fact, continue to run and thicken the batch to the point where the cut-off circuit that is designed to protect the motor from overheating may engage. For those that want this machine to give them years of dependable service, I do not recommend pushing this machine into ice cream maker territory. For hard-packed ice cream you will need a true ice cream maker, and if you want one that does not require rock salt, ice or freezer bowls you will spend significantly more to purchase a self-refrigerating/freezing type.
TIPS & TRICKS
Some of the suggestions I have gathered reading online reviews have been invaluable to the successful operation of this product. For example, the owner's guide says to freeze the bowl for 15 hours, but I left mine in for over 24 because I do not have one of those spare chest-type freezers in the garage or basement (which typically get colder). The name of the game is to have the ingredients as cold as possible in order to shorten the length of time necessary to produce soft serve. So while it is not called for in the owner's guide, I found it helpful to mix up the ingredients using a wire whisk and chill them in the refrigerator along with the churning paddle for an additional period of time. This is because my sugar and vanilla were not cold and the mixing action of a whisk or low speed mixer churns in room temperature air. If your home is warm enough, the soft serve ingredients may benefit from 20-30 minutes of additional refrigeration.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Improvements in this machine might make it more widely appreciated. For instance, if there were some way of putting the process on a timer (using some sort of internal temperature sensor to determine when the ideal soft serve texture has been reached, thereby controlling when the motor stops and starts). The manufacturer should also consider adding a rotary flow control valve on the topping dispenser. Far too much rushes out and mixes in with the soft serve as it dispenses. Consequently, I can foresee how this could become the most expensive aspect of making soft serve ice cream (replacing the quickly disappearing condiments).
In addition, only select toppings are compatible (dry, not liquid). An included plastic spout allows you to test whether or not the condiments are small enough to pass through the dispenser. Toppings that stick together will not be successful, but mini M&Ms and other coated candy or cake decorating sprinkles will work. On a side note, some have complained that the built-in cone holder will only hold cake cones and will not accommodate pointed-tip waffle or sugar cones. I have yet to verify this, but the small funnel that you use to test whether the toppings will fit through the dispenser can rest in the cone dispenser area and might double as an adapter to hold point-tip cones. If not, Cuisinart should consider including an adapter for this purpose. Better yet, it would be nice if the cone area could be used for permanent storage. Unfortunately, the cone stacking area is not covered with a transparent plastic keep-fresh storage tube. As a result, you can only place the cones in shortly before use if you do not want them to go stale.
The last improvement that would be nice is if Cuisinart could come up with some way of keeping the soft serve at the proper dispensing temperature for a longer period of time. The problem with the current incarnation is that if you turn off the machine the soft serve will begin to harden around the edges of the bowl, and if you leave it running it will become too firm to exit the machine. Perhaps it is relying on gravity and/or could benefit from a stronger motorized dispensing assist. Then again, all of this would add significantly to the cost. But hey, a kitchen gadget nut can always dream, right?
This is one of those kitchen gadgets, much like an espresso machine, that presents somewhat of a learning curve. Read the operating instructions — or better yet download them prior to purchase from Cuisinart's website — and don't be afraid to experiment once you get the basics down pat. Should you have problems your possibilities are limited and fairly straightforward to troubleshoot:
1) The machine stops paddling. Cause: The protection circuit has either activated, it has lost power, or the motor has broken.
2) Will not produce anything but a soup consistency no mater how long you leave it running. Either you are using a recipe or an adaptation that is not compatible with successful soft serve results OR your bowl and ingredients were not adequately chilled. (Is your home particularly warm? This might also contribute to whether your soft serve is ready in 15 minutes vs. 30+.)
3) The soft serve won't dispense. You waited too long to dispense the soft serve and now it is too thick. Turning off the motor will not allow it to warm up and thin out because the bowl is still ice cold and will only freeze around the edges. The solution is to keep a closer eye on the contents as it mixes from about 15 minutes onward and to test by dispensing into a small cup every minute or so. Be ready to dispense the entire desired quantity pretty much back-to-back once it is ready. You can't come back 15 minutes later for a second helping and expect it to work (although you can still serve from the bowl itself).
4) The soft serve mix is dripping all over. Problem: You left the lever that dispenses the soft serve partially down and the soft serve flow has not been entirely cut off. Solution: Make sure the pull-down lever is in the uppermost position before and after dispensing.
Follow the aforementioned steps and you will be sure to enjoy results consistent with an ice cream shop!
Who will most benefit from this soft serve machine? I can come up up with a few categories of ideal owners:
1) Soft serve and kitchen gadget nuts;
2) Those with food allergies or lactose intolerance who need to control for ingredients;
3) Those who would like to make healthier frozen dessert choices. (Although I would advise sticking with the basic recipes during initial use. This will help rule out a faulty machine vs. a flopped recipe.);
4) Anyone who likes to experiment in the kitchen with flavors you can't easily locate elsewhere. Have a hankering for cinnamon soft serve? Pumpkin Sp'Ice? If it isn't easy to find locally, this machine is a great solution.
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