College students use ingenuity to whip up dorm meals

08/08/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2012 11:42 AM

Ramen noodles will always sit on a special shelf in the hearts of hungry, poor college students.

Gone, though, are the days when salty, MSG-laden meals were the only option outside of a dining hall.

Creative college students are experimenting with first-time cooking and following gourmet trends in their dorm rooms and shared kitchenettes. An iron, a microwave and a blender are all they need to create dormitory delights like panini, pesto, smoothies, cake, eggs and other meals.

Most university dorms, including those at California State University, Sacramento, and UC Davis, allow microwaves and refrigerators but for safety reasons ban anything with an open coil, along with hot plates, toasters and George Foreman grills. But down the hallway, many modern dormitories have kitchenettes for students who want to do more than microwave.

Ben Harley, a third-year microbiology student and resident adviser at UC Davis, arrived at college accustomed to eating home-cooked meals almost every night.

There was no television in his dorm room, so he surfed the Web for entertainment and found cooking shows.

Inspired by amateur chefs who became cooking sensations, Harley tackled his first cooking feat: cake from a Betty Crocker mix. He used an oven in the dorm's shared kitchen. From there he moved onto pies, starting off with premade pie crusts. Now he can make his own crust.

Chicken, steak, mashed potatoes – he's experimented with all of them on the stovetop of the kitchenette he shares with the rest of his dorm. But desserts are Harley's favorites. He mainly cooks on weekends or for fun with his friends, and he uses cooking and baking as bonding activities for the residents he advises in the dorm.

"Creativity, for me, has mostly been out of necessity," he said. "We're lacking basic ingredients, so we have to do something different. We were trying to bake a cake, and we were missing some ingredient so we substituted yogurt. And we didn't have frosting, so we decided to make a berry whipped cream instead."

One former college student in Florida has turned that cooking creativity into a popular website filled with recipes and tips for people living in dorms or learning how to cook for the first time.

Candace Braun Davison, who graduated from the University of South Florida in December 2009, went to college excited about her dining hall only to find out they served a repetitive loop of meals.

She would use her blender to make soups and smoothies, microwave to make egg scrambles and her iron to make panini and grilled cheese.

"You can use it (an iron) on the cotton or linen setting and take a sandwich wrapped in foil and spend 30 seconds ironing each side. It makes a perfect grilled cheese," she said in a phone interview.

One of her most innovative recipes was the product of having not much more than tortillas, cinnamon, sugar and fruit on hand when she needed to bring something to a party. Davison used her oven to bake the tortillas and sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar; she mixed the fruit into a fruit salsa.

The concoction "became the hit of the party," she said. And she still uses it. The recipe is listed on her website, which she started when she was a student adviser and realized other students were struggling to cook and find recipes basic enough for a first-timer.

The site features recipes like mushroom ravioli with sausage vodka sauce, just-like-Starbucks crumbly coffee cake and vegan cookies and cream truffles. The truffles, which are fusions of Oreos, cream cheese and chocolate, are a favorite among her friends, she said.

While Davison's and Harley's cooking skills have grown during their time in college, third-year biology student McKenzie Winter is still sticking with her meal plan at UC Davis.

"The only things I know how to cook really are eggs and cereal," she said.

Winter described one of the most delicious recipes she's made – a waffle jeweled with yogurt, honey, granola and fresh fruit. She was proud of the trimmings but admitted that her "cooking" consisted of pouring waffle batter into a waffle iron.

She and another resident assistant in the Davis dorms held an "Iron Chef"-like competition for incoming residents. Their challenge was to make pizza in the shared dorm kitchen, and the competition ended in a tie between a pizza shaped like a heart and another heaped with toppings.

Ramona Hernandez, business services director for UC Davis Housing, said meal plans at UC Davis are mandatory for students who live in residence halls. It's a way to encourage students to mingle, Hernandez said.

"We don't want students just to camp out in their room and cook and stay there," she said.

Harley and Davison said when they cook, it's usually with others.

"It's definitely more motivating, I think, when I bake or cook with other people," Harley said.

Motivation and confidence building are what Davison called the keys to learning how to cook.

"You start making things your own, and once you start making dishes that feel like your own, any recipe is yours," she said.


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