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How to make cakes and alienate people

Your morning cuppa, vain attempts to catch the name of the flat recluse, and the knock-out smell of burning plastic. Helena Parker introduces you to the centre of your freshers world.

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Credit: Martin Kirkegaard
Credit: Martin Kirkegaard

That first evening when you arrive in halls, you see your new home for the next year, you catch a glimpse of the Girl Next Door, you consider whether to unpack... and then head to the kitchen for the first cuppa of university.

For my first year at least, without a sofa available and particularly before I crossed the barrier of collapsing on the Girl Next Door's bed (give it until the end of Freshers' Week), the kitchen was the social centre of the flat. Everyone needs food: even the most antisocial of flatmates will have to venture into the breach for a fork once in a while. Challenge 1: Catch them in the act and draw them into conversation. It's harder than you might think. We had a house mate who was nicknamed 'Bob' for the entirety of our first year because of our failure to pin her down...

Food can also be a great bribery technique. Do my washing, I'll make you dinner. Here's cake, now can I have your lecture notes? Sorted. Everyone loves cake. Challenge 2: make a decent cake without a good oven or the right cooking stuff.

Cooking for yourself may seem like an impossibility to people who don't like cooking, or have never done more than make a piece of toast (it's amazing how far wrong that particular skill can go - no one should have to face a college smoke alarm on a Thursday morning), and it is a steep learning curve, but absolutely possible. One of my house mates has gone from curry-from-the-jar every night to lamb shank in a red wine jus in three short terms. Challenge 3: Impress someone by cooking something posh for them.

Sitting at the table chatting is something you will probably do a lot for pre-drinks, but not so much for food. Sometimes, it's worth trying to coordinate eating together. It will surprise you how much more you enjoy a meal when it's not eaten alone, particularly if you have created something totally inedible that you'd just rather not think about it. Challenge 4: Get everybody in the house to eat at the same time. We managed it once. Just.

Eating together can also mean cooking together - it is cheaper per person to cook for two or three than for one; so find a willing housemate or two, and experiment with food for each other once a week. You get to try someone else's cooking, and have a gossip. What more could you want? Challenge 5: Cook for your entire house, without using all the pans in the kitchen.

Although there will be hiccups, and experiments will go wrong, and you will eat at least one thing that is unrecognisable as food at some point, and there will be minimum one person in your flat who feels the need to interfere with your cooking when you just want them to go away, cooking is one of the quickest ways to meet people, cheer up, sober up, and have a great time. So when you arrive bouncing off the walls with excitement, take up Challenge 6: take the Girl Next Door looking slightly green with nerves a cup of tea.

Challenge 7: Don't melt a Tupperware on the hob. The smell is something else.

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