Did you know it is possible to make meringue in a microwave? How about almost-instant ice cream with a freezer bag and some rock salt? Or a whole cake in the time it takes to boil an egg?
It sounds like chemistry-lab level alchemy, but these are just some of the miraculous-sounding baking tips Northern Irish food writer Sarah Rainey shares in her new cookbook, 6-minute Showstoppers.
"If you can make egg whites and sugar come together and puff up in the microwave," she explains, "you're halfway there to making an entire pavlova." Her coconut berry pavlova genuinely takes six minutes to make, and probably even fewer to scoff.
When it comes to baking, Rainey has a history of making the daunting and complicated seem suddenly achievable. Her debut cookbook, 3-Ingredient Baking, set out to eliminate cake-related complications. Barely any ingredients in your cupboards, and very few baking techniques under your belt? No problem.
Now, 6-minute Showstoppers extends that ethos to account for the fact that not only do people often have limited ingredients, "they also don't have an awful lot of time". And while in lockdown lately we've ended up with more time at home, "that doesn't necessarily mean people's lives are any less busy" – especially if they're working from home, or home schooling, acknowledges Rainey. The thought of destroying the kitchen in pursuit of a sweet treat, and then waiting an hour for it to bake, can easily drop to the bottom of the to-do list – but our appetite for them is possibly higher than ever.
"If we ever needed cake, this is the time," says Rainey, and the treats in 6-minute Showstoppers aim to hit the sweet spot between swift, simple and delicious. There are red velvet mug cakes, rum pineapple skewers, sloe gin jellies, Welsh cakes, Nutella ravioli and a ridiculously good-looking molten Mars Bar spoon cake. Throughout, Rainey utilises clever hacks so your sugar hit is on the table before anyone in your household has time to moan a second time that they just need a biscuit.
"I hope that people will be impressed with what you can make in six minutes," says Rainey. "I hope that they're impressed with themselves."
There are a few savoury recipes to be found amongst the pages too – halloumi fritters, a frying pan pizza, a microwavable shakshuka – but most are unabashedly sugary "because that's where my real indulgence is, I have a hugely sweet tooth," says Rainey. "Most of them are terribly bad for you, but terribly delicious."
Rainey's childhood in Northern Ireland was filled with home cooked meals, and batches of her grandmother's fresh scones and bread. It wasn't until after university – Rainey studied law at Cambridge – that she became really interested in cooking for herself though. "I used to live on microwave meals back then," she says – although admittedly, that's set her in good stead for her microwave cake creations. "Now I like to make everything from scratch."
Some feel dread when faced with the prospect of throwing dinner together, yet again, but Rainey sees opportunity. "I love the Ready Steady Cook challenge of looking in your cupboards, in your fridge, and going, 'Right, I've got three things, what can I do with them? I've got six minutes, go.' That's my switch-off relaxation activity."
It's an approach to cooking that's been particularly useful in lockdown, when tracking down certain ingredients can require both extreme nous and total luck of the shelf-stacking rota. "If you don't have any flour in your house, just grind up some oats or almonds, or even some dried chickpeas," suggests Rainey. "If you don't have egg whites, you can use the water from a can of chickpeas to make your meringue. There's always something you can use."
And if there was a perfect moment to eat delicious things, she reiterates, now "is a good time to do it."
"It makes people happy," says Rainey. "We're going back to traditional, old-school hobbies and activities, and baking is the ultimate example. You put a little bit of yourself into baking. To give someone a cake or a biscuit or a dessert that you've made, it's really baked with love – even if you do it in six minutes, that doesn't mean you put any less effort in. You probably put more in to try and get it done in the time.
"It's a really lovely gesture making something for someone," she adds. "However small." And small acts of kindness are the ultimate currency right now.
6-minute Showstoppers by Sarah Rainey, photography by Clare Winfield, is published by Michael Joseph, priced GBP 14.99. Available now.