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The Improvised Kitchen

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Green cupcakes in a baking tray

Many, many meals can be conjured up with a saucepan, a spoon, and a knife - but sometimes you need something a little more sophisticated. And there will be times when you find yourself in an understocked kitchen, or can't afford to rush out and buy the right tool. Whether you're fending for yourself in student accommodation, trying to whip up a cake in a bachelor's kitchen, trying out an exotic recipe or just haven't unpacked your moving boxes yet, here are some ideas on how to hack the kitchen utensils you have into the ones you need.

Measuring Things

Baking by volume is inherently less accurate than using weights, so don't panic if you don't have an official measuring cup on hand! It's not important that you get the exact amounts right, just that the proportions of the ingredients are right - so if you're cooking or baking by volume, just pick a single vessel and use that1 to measure everything. A metric cup is defined as 250ml and a US cup holds 236ml, so pick something close to that. Drinking glasses are an excellent choice; they are transparent so you can see how far you've filled them, and cylindrical or close to cylindrical, making it easier to gauge fractions. A whiskey glass usually holds about 250 ml, a longdrink or water glass 200ml - 330ml, and a wine or champagne glass 100 ml. A pint glass, as the name implies, has room for a pint, or 570ml2, and shot glasses vary from 20ml to 60ml. And yes, a teaspoon holds about one teaspoon.

Some recipes, especially European ones, will refer for a sachet of dry yeast or baking powder without specifying weight or volume. These usually contain enough for 500g of flour3, so read the notes on the container your version comes in, and you should be able to deduce it from that. Typically, though, yeast packets will contain 7g or two teaspoons and baking powder packets contain 15g or 5 level teaspoons. For baking powder, if all else fails, estimate by using just enough to fill the hollow in the palm of your hand.

Building a Displacement Scale

If you do want to cook or bake by weight, and you have no scales handy - never fear! Science has the answer. All you need is water, a few vessels to contain it, and something whose weight is known - which can be more water, if you have something to measure that with. The SI units - the metric system by which science works - defines a litre of water as having a mass of one kilogram4. So one millilitre of water weighs one gram.

Now let's talk boats. If you've ever looked at the specs for yachts, they never list the weight, they list the displacement. If you immerse an object in water, the volume of the water that's displaced, or pushed out of the way, is the same as the volume of the object being immersed5. But if the object is light enough to float on water, then the displaced water will have the same weight. Now, weight isn't the same as mass in a physics sense, but if we don't actively push down on our object with anything other than the force of gravity, the displacement can tell us the mass.

Don't worry, you don't have to understand exactly how the science bit works, just that it works, and how to use it. Ideally, you'll have a large measuring jug marked with gradients, in which case you can skip the next two paragraphs - otherwise, you can make your own. You'll need a big bowl, preferably transparent, and something to mark it with. If you think you'll be using this more often, a dedicated bowl that you can write on with a permanent marker is handiest, otherwise, any old bowl and some bits of tape will do.

Fill the bowl with water, about halfway, and find a somewhat smaller bowl that will float in it. Lighter is better, and a wide bowl is less likely to tip over. When you've got the inner bowl floating in the outer one, mark the level of the water on the side of the outer bowl - it's easiest if you're using a transparent bowl, so you can just put a pen mark or a piece of tape on the outside. If you fill the inner bowl with water, then the water in the big bowl rises. We'll need to do that in a controlled way.

So now you need something whose weight you know. Water, again, is ideal, and it doesn't have to come from a marked measuring jug. If you have a shot glass that you know holds exactly 20ml, filling the inner bowl and marking the water level in the outer bowl one shot glass at a time will give you a fairly accurate scale in 20g increments. If you have nothing to measure water with, use something else that's easy to divide into smaller portions of equal weight. Most sugar cubes weigh 4g, so adding five sugar cubes at a time will also give you increments of 20g. Chocolate typically comes in bars of 100g each - and if not, the weight will be marked on the packet - and is easily broken into pieces6 of equal size and weight for fractions.

Once your bowl is marked, empty out the inner bowl, dry it, and set it afloat again, making sure the water in the outer bowl comes up just to your first mark. Then add your required ingredients until the water reaches the required mark - for example, if you made 20g increments, for 100g of sugar, you'll need enough to make the water go up five marks. When you're done, you can dry the bowls off and put them away, use them again for mixing, or whatever else strikes your fancy. As long as the marks don't rub off and you use the the same two bowls every time, you won't have to go through the whole process of preparing them again!

The Shape of Cakes to Come

So now you've measured your dough and mixed it up - in a cooking pot or well-scrubbed washing-up bowl, in a pinch - how can you go about turning it into biscuits? If you lack a proper rolling pin, almost anything sturdy and cylindrical about a foot long can be pressed into service. The old student stand-by is an empty wine bottle, but an aluminium water bottle, a steel vacuum flask, the heavy cardboard core from a roll of tinfoil or plastic wrap, or even a length of broomstick will do just as well.

If you have no biscuit cutters, you can do what our ancestors did and just cut out rounds with a glass or teacup - you can use a thimble to cut a hole out of the centre if you want wreaths. Or you can use a knife or a pizza cutter to make long strips, then cut them into triangles, rectangles or diamonds. Shortbread is traditionally made into petticoat tails by patting the dough into a flat disc, then scoring it into wedges with a knife. If you do have biscuit cutters, they come in handy for a variety of other uses, too - lay one on top of an iced cake and fill with a thin layer of sprinkles to stencil on decorations, or put the metal ones in a frying pan7, then fill with beaten egg to make scrambled egg in interesting shapes.

Eggs and cream for cakes can be whipped fluffy by hand - a long, tedious process - or in a blender, if you have no electric mixer. If you lack the pans to bake your cake, or a dish in which to prepare a casserole, have a look around your kitchen to see what else might be ovenproof. An old cooking pot will work, provided it's all metal with no plastic knobs, but be aware that using it in the oven might warp it, so it will no longer sit flat on your stove for regular use. Many ceramic bowls and deep plates are also ovenproof, as are many glass measuring jugs. If all else fails, find something of the right sort of shape and use it as a mould for several thicknesses of aluminium foil. This works best for batters that aren't too soft. If your problem is just that your baking sheet is too large, you can dam off part of it with tinfoil, holding it in place with dry beans8 on the empty side, if necessary.

Cupcakes and muffins can be baked in just the little paper or foil cases, set side-by-side on a baking sheet, though they don't have the same structural integrity, so your fairy cakes might end up charmingly lop-sided. As the name cupcake implies, the batter can also be spooned into ovenproof mugs, teacups, or ramekins for baking - they can be served straight from the container that way. A mug and a microwave can also come in handy if you're in the mood for a quick little cake just for yourself.

If you have no oven at all and still want to bake a cake for someone special, make a pile of slightly sweetened pancakes or waffles. These can then be stacked and filled with sliced fruit and whipped cream or icing. If you're using tinned fruit, empty the entire tin into a saucepan, bring it to a gentle boil, and add a bit of cornflour9 stirred smooth with water or a bit of the syrup. This will help thicken it so it doesn't make everything soggy! If you have no way to whip fresh cream, use squirty cream - or for a truly decadent cake, buy ready-made chocolate mousse and use that to ice and fill. Decorate with chocolate leaves - just pick some small and non-toxic leaves, wash them and pat them dry, then use a new paintbrush to coat them with a thin layer of melted chocolate. If you take care not to cover the edges, the leaves should peel right off once the chocolate has set.

Once your cakes are baked, you need to cool them, prefereably on a wire rack. No problem. Simply remove the 'grill' bit from your grill pan. And if you need more space to cool largish things, you can use an oven shelf. Just remember to remove it from the oven before you start baking.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Now, chocolate icing may look scrumptious, but sometimes, you need something a little more colourful. If you haven't got food colouring, try making up your icing with another coloured liquid - it won't be quite as bright as the artificially dyed stuff, but you can achieve some lovely pastel shades. And many ingredients also add flavour! Red wine, or cherry or raspberry juice make pink, while blueberry or blackberry juice results in a nice lavender shade. Blackcurrant and red grape juices are also somewhere on the reddish-purple spectrum. For yellow, use saffron, or mix your icing sugar with egg yolk10, or orange or mango juice for a paler shade. Instant coffee makes a softer brown than cocoa.

Other colours are achievable naturally, but probably won't taste as good in your icing. But you can still use them to dye Easter eggs11 or savoury dishes! Boil your colourful ingredients in water with a bit of vinegar12 added to intensify the colour, add the eggs while they're still hot, and leave them until they reach the desired shade. If you put rubber bands around the eggs before dyeing, they will leave white13 stripes when you take them off.

Suggested natural ingredients:

  • Onion skins: yellow onion skins make orange, red onion skins lavender to purple, depending on the amount used.
  • Berries: as with icing, berry juice can be used to dye eggs. It works best if you don't dilute it.
  • Carrots: the tops make yellow, the carrots themselves, orange.
  • Spinach: pale green, the intensity depends on the amount used.
  • Pickled beet juice: red - plain old boiled beets make grey.
  • Red cabbage: this is a natural indicator of pH, so adding vinegar will give you red or pink, while adding baking soda makes blue or purple.

To make the eggs shiny, rub them with butter or cooking oil14 and polish with a paper towel. If you haven't got any egg cups, shot glasses or even empty sellotape rolls will do for serving - the latter double up as napkin rings, so you can have a matching set! And if you have an egg slicer, make it earn its keep by putting it to use slicing other things, too - it's great for boiled potatoes.

Glug Glug Glug

But it's not all about food - even the best cake will be a little dry if you don't have a cup of tea to wash it down with! Both tea and coffee can just be brewed in a cup or a jug, but you'll have the problem of loose tea leaves or grounds in your cuppa. Pour the finished brew into a fresh cup through a mesh sieve or a clean dish towel to prevent that last crunchy mouthful. A coffee maker can be pressed into service to make a passable cup of tea - either put tea bags in the filter basket without a filter, or loose tea leaves in a regular coffee filter. Since it won't steep as long, you'll probably need slightly more tea than you'd usually use. If you have no coffee maker, you can achieve much the same effect as the automated version by putting a funnel in the mouth of a jug, lining it with a paper filter, adding coffee grounds, and then slowly pouring boiling water on it direct from the kettle.

To open a wine bottle with no corkscrew, you can try one of several methods. Piercing the cork and then pushing it in or prying it out with a pen-knife are perhaps the two best known. You can also try screwing in a cup hook and pulling on that, or a straight screw and gripping it with a pair of pliers. If you have a penknife and a bootlace, you can tie a knot in the end of the lace, push it past the cork with the knife blade, and then pull on it - hopefully, the knot will catch under the cork, allowing you to ease it out. If all else fails, find a wall, a wide post, or a tree. Wrap your towel around the bottom of the bottle to pad it, then thump the bottom of the bottle rhythmically against the wall, being careful not to break it. The pressure should push the cork out far enough for you to grip it with your fingers. Don't try to behead the bottle, because this will cause dangerous glass splinters to go flying all around.

Implements designed for making beverages can also be put to alternative uses. Coffee grinders, for example, can also grind other small, hard things like spices. To clean it before and after, simply grind a slice of stale bread. This has the added advantage of giving you seasoned breadcrumbs, though the ones you used to get the coffee off the blades might not taste so good coating your chicken.

Those tea-strainers consisting of a bisected wire mesh ball that opens when you squeeze the handle, for example, come in very handy elsewhere. You might use them to infuse mulled wine with spices without having to spend ages fishing for that last clove. But in this Researcher's household, the thing has an entirely different purpose - it lives in the icing sugar jar. It's used to distribute the sugar evenly over waffles, cakes, and anything else needing a light dusting of sugar with a minimum of fuss and bother. This also works with cocoa powder, or for dusting baking sheets or worktops with flour.

To Protect and Serve

Since you're putting all that effort into cooking, it would be a shame to make enough for only one meal. Fortunately, this won't be a problem if you're making soup, because it appears to be a fundamental law of the universe that you can never make less than twice the amount of soup that you actually need. If you want to take your leftover food to the office for lunch, send some home with your guests, or freeze it for another day, you'll need a suitable container. You don't have to go out and buy special ones, though - empty margarine or cream cheese tubs will do just as well. They stack neatly, are just the right size for a single serving, and best of all, they're free,so you won't have to worry about getting your Tupperware back from your friends.

If all that's left of your box of chocolates is a few crumbs and a lingering smell of cocoa, don't despair! It can be pressed into service to prepare more sweets. The boxes themselves, lined with aluminium foil or plastic wrap, are just the right size for cooling things like fudge, and can simply be peeled off afterward to make cutting easy. The little plastic inserts make decent chocolate moulds, or makeshift ice cube trays15.

If you're being very green, you can also re-use the bags that bread and pastries come in for your sandwiches. Sandwiches are, of course, the ultimate improvised meal, because anything stuck between two slices of bread is a sandwich. This is even more true of toasties - not only is the filling re-heated nicely, it's sealed in and hidden, too, so you'll be safe from funny looks. For example, leftover curries make good toastie fillings if there isn't enough to make another entire meal.

Although it appears, at first, to be a one-trick pony, the humble toastie maker can be pressed into service for all kinds of things, so it's a very useful appliance for students and the office-bound without access to a regular kitchen. It also makes fried eggs and triangular omelettes or pancakes. Leftover rice or pasta, vegetables, and a bit of cheese become a mini-casserole with a crunchy crust. And for a quick, satisfying sweet when there is no oven available, nothing beats a toastie filled with chocolate.

Last But Not Least

You can cut a pizza with a plain old regular knife. And instead of a spork, you could just use a fork and a spoon. No, really!

1Or several identical ones, if you don't want to clean it in between.2Or exactly 568ml, if you want to be pedantic.3Though in Eastern Europe, one packet may be meant for 1kg of flour, so be careful!4The little subtleties concerning pressure, temperature, and water purity are irrelevant in the context of baking, since they don't noticeably mess up your measurements.5This realisation is said to have caused Archimedes to run down the road naked shouting 'Eureka!'6Just make sure they don't all disappear before you use them to make your scale.7If it's a non-stick pan, turn them with the sharp side up so they don't scratch the finish.8While these won't be any use for eating anymore, you can save them and re-use for baking pastry shells and piecrusts. Line your cake tin with shortcrust, then pour in the beans to bake so it won't puff up too much. You can put a piece of greaseproof paper between the pastry and the beans to keep them from sticking. 9Cornstarch, to American readers.10But use fresh eggs, and don't serve it to very young or very old people, because there's always a risk of salmonella with uncooked eggs.11Of course, we mean coloured hen's eggs, not chocolate ones!12Not too much, or you'll dissolve the eggshells.13Brown eggs are more difficult to colour, and work best with shades of red.14Not shoe polish, lamp oil or petroleum jelly - eggshells are porous and will let a small quantity of what you rub on them through, so only use food-grade fats to polish them.15It's easier to move them to the freezer without spilling if you leave them in the box.

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