Date of writing: 31/08/2015
While the food we are given each day could certainly be much worse, and is indeed sometimes quite pleasant, there are nonetheless many things that we rarely if ever have the chance to savour. A proper roast dinner, a nice rare steak, or any kind of seafood that is readily identifiable as being from a single creature are just a few examples. Desserts are something I’ve avoided since I first came to prison, largely as they are, for the most part, singularly unappealing. Watery custard and bland, stodgy sponges are unlikely to be anyone’s first choice.
It is probably for these reasons (as well as boredom and creative instincts lacking an outlet) that many inmates take occasional forays into the world of in-cell culinary creation. Officially, we are not allowed to cook anything in our cells, largely for ‘health and safety reasons’. But when we’re given the option to purchase ‘cooking onions’, garlic, herbs, curry powder, garam masala, ground coriander, and chopped tomatoes (among other things), then I’m not sure what else they expect us to do with them when we have no official cooking facilities. There appears to be a curry club that meets in the dining hall at the weekend to consume sauces that can only have been cooked in kettles. These are usually accompanied by implausibly tall towers of toast (rice not being one of the things we can buy).
So, the challenge many have taken on is to see what can be created with the limited ingredients and equipment available. Having only a single 500-watt travel kettle can make things a little difficult. However, on the dessert front I’ve encountered numerous variations on rice crispies or cornflakes covered in chocolate, ‘rocky road’, unbaked flapjacks, and occasionally, cheesecake. Frequently, unavailable ingredients are replaced with ersatz equivalents, and this can be to such an extent that what is made is no longer really what it claims to be. I am reminded of Baldrick’s version of ‘coffee’ in Blackadder Goes Forth, which consisted only of mud and spit.
You may be aware of my opinion that a simple crème brûlée is the best dessert. Fact. However, fresh eggs are hard to come by (unlike HMP Different, sadly we have no chickens here and perhaps unsurprisingly, blowtorches are even rarer.) I do quite like cheesecake though, but I’ve heard of the mascarpone being replaced by Philadelphia, which is never going to taste like an actual cheesecake. Not to mention the fact that we can’t even get Philadelphia here anyway. With this in mind, I set out to see if I could do any better. Well, I was so pleased with the result that I thought I’d share my recipe, and alongside it a few small insights into how we manage to overcome some of the limitations of our environment.
This recipe makes enough for a good-sized dessert for one, or a pleasant addition to afternoon tea if shared with one or two others. You will need the following ingredients:
One 500ml carton of whole UHT milk (I assume regular whole pasteurised milk would work too, but am unable to test that for myself).
Five digestive biscuits.
Five prison-issue sachets of sugar (five teaspoons)
Four prison-issue individual portions of ‘Light Sunflower Spread’, which is somehow only 35% fat, raising the baffling question of what on earth the rest of it actually is (four teaspoons of ordinary margarine will no doubt suffice).
A small amount of salt, which can either be bought in huge tubs at very little cost, or laboriously emptied from tiny paper sachets for some reason.
You will also need the following equipment:
Two largeish plastic containers, with a capacity around one litre. If you know someone who works in the Waste Management department, he might be able to fish something out for you, but make sure you wash anything he gives you pretty thoroughly before you use it.
One ‘J-Cloth’. These are usually available from your wing staff, but some wings insist on only offering them at set times and on set days, which are usually not advertised. At a pinch, you could thoroughly clean and then boil a lightly-used one, but it must have no holes in it.
A piece of string around 70cm long. The best person to get this from is probably the chap who does the newspapers. It’s not very good string, but does the job.
One roll-on deodorant container, full or empty. It’s purpose will become clear later.
Two ‘breakfast pack’ clear plastic bags (these are about 20cm square).
One CERN planisphere badger. Now, badgers are verboten, but CERN planispheres are not. The trick is to find someone with access to a squirrel at work.
One blunt plastic knife. It doesn’t have to be blunt – in fact it’d be far better if it wasn’t – but they always are.
One ‘takeaway’-style foil container, with a base around 11cm x 8cm. These are often given out containing the vegetarian meal option to keep it separate from the meat.
One sink with a hot water supply and working plug. If there is no plug, you can fashion a makeshift one from wet tissue tied in a breakfast pack bag.
A place to tie the string such that it could hang over a container.
- Take the lemon and use the CERN planisphere badger to ‘grate’ the rind. Well, it’s more scraping than grating really, and is a bit of a faff. I’ve got my eyes peeled for a better solution. Set the grated zest to one side.
- Put the roll-on deodorant container into one of the plastic bags, pushing the ‘point’ into one of the corners, and tie a knot in the bag so that there will be no danger of any manly scent getting into your lemon juice.
- Roughly hack your lemon in half using the blunt plastic knife, mystifyingly managing to cut your thumb in the process, and with the pointy end of the bagged deodorant container, thoroughly squeeze the juice from both halves into one of the plastic containers.
- Line the second plastic container with the J-cloth, and pour the lemon juice on to the cloth. Squeeze it through the cloth into the container (taking care not to use too much pressure and damage the cloth) leaving any pith or seeds behind. Dispose of this pulp, and thoroughly rinse the cloth – you’ll need it again in a minute.
- Add the lemon zest you grated earlier to the strained lemon juice, and then add a small amount of the milk. Swirl it around as you do this, and you’ll see that the milk begins to curdle. Gradually add the rest of the milk in stages, allowing it to mix well each time. It should seem thick and bitty when you’re finished.
- Fill your sink with hot water, and float the container of curdled lemony milk in it, ensuring the water does not overflow the container into the milk, or vice-versa. Leave this for perhaps ten minutes, agitating occasionally. This helps to complete the curdling of the milk.
- While you’re waiting, put the digestive biscuits into a breakfast pack bag and crush them with your hands into fine crumbs. Add the Light Sunflower Spread and also just a small touch of salt (the Spread is entirely saltless for some reason, and hence has no apparent flavour whatsoever). Mix well until you have a clumpy texture with no visible unmixed Spread.
- Put this biscuit mix into the bottom of the foil container, spreading it as flat as possible, perhaps using your trusty blunt plastic knife.
- Take the container into which you first squeezed the lemon, and line it with the clean J-Cloth. It doesn’t matter if there is still some lemon pulp in this container, as you’ll discard what ends up there. Pour the curdled milk onto the cloth, making sure it doesn’t slip down into the container.
- Tie a slip-knot in one end of the string, then gather the edges of the cloth so that it contains the mixture without overflowing, and tighten the knot over the fathered edges. If you pick this up, you should see a clearish liquid flowing from the bottom.
- Tie the free end of the string to your hanging place over the container, and allow it to drain. It can be encouraged by squeezing, but if the liquid flows cloudy then you’re squeezing too hard. With a following wind, it should be possible to drain to a creamy mascarpone-like consistency in about ten minutes with some squeezing.
- Take down and open your cloth on a flat, clean, non-porous surface. Add the sugar and a small pinch of salt and mix thoroughly, either on the cloth or in a bowl if you have one.
- Spread the mix evenly onto the biscuit base you put into the foil container earlier.
- If you have access to a fridge (lucky you) then cover and chill until firm. If not, then this step can be omitted; it’ll just be a little stickier.
- Tear and peel away the sides of the foil container to reveal a beautiful and delicious Lemon Cheesecake à la Oubliette.
I’d consider making a version of it in the ‘real world’, as the ingredients are probably cheaper than buying an equivalent quality M & S version (other middle-class supermarkets are available). While these instructions may seem long-winded, it shouldn’t actually take much more than half an hour. Do let me know if you end up trying it yourself.
Here are some interesting and useful crossword clues for you:
CERN planisphere is confused – that makes a point. (6-9)
Badger: Sharp young chap is guarded by pollinator without a tail. (5)
Squirrel: Cocktail made by working group in South Dakota with flower. (11)