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Serious Entertaining: A Dorm Room Dinner

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt, unless otherwise noted]

Here's the situation: It's 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the week after school's back in session. You're in your dorm room catching up on a game of Borderlands 2 when suddenly an email drops into your inbox. "Hey champ, it's me, [insert name attractive member of whatever sex is attractive to you here]!" Your eyes light up as you continue reading with interest. "I've noticed you staring at the back of my head in class, so rather than make the awkward introductions and all that, I'm just going to come right out and let you make me dinner. The quality of our meal will determine the entire future of our potential relationship. Over and out, Captain."

Damn, you think. I shouldn't have spent my last $200 on those Beats by Dre headphones last week. Now I can't even afford a $1 Big Mac to woo with. My life is over.

Over? Did you say over? In the words of the esteemed scholar Bluto Blutarsky, Nothing's over until we decide it is!

Just because you've signed your life over to a university along with the sleepless nights, raging hangovers, loud music, and barely-edible industrial slop it comes with, that doesn't mean you have to live a life of austerity devoid of oral pleasures. You may only have a hot plate and a microwave to work with, but when there are [insert member of the attractive sex here]s coming over, it's still possible to wow them with your culinary prowess.

You've just got to learn to make the most of what you've got available to you.

So crack some High Lifes, punt some problem sets, line up some shots, and get ready to give gourmet cooking the good ol' college try.

Hors D'oeuvres: Amped Up Popcorn

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

First up: You need a few snacks to whet the appetite. Everyone knows that the microwave was invented for one purposes and one purposes only: making popcorn. There's nothing elegant about the faux-butter aroma of the pre-seasoned stuff, but I'll let you in on a little secret: you can buy plain popcorn and pop it in a paper bag in the microwave. True story.

After that, it's just a matter of mixing up your own seasoning blend to suit your mood. Feeling cool? Go with some cool buttermilk ranch with black pepper. Or how about hot, with buffalo wing sauce and butter? Adventurous spirits are sure to be taken by lemongrass and chili, and you know what they say about adventurous people.

» Here are 10 ideas for seasoning your popcorn!

First Course: Grilled Cheese

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So you don't have a burner, or heck, even a skillet. No worries—you can make grilled cheeses (or any grilled sandwich, really) with nothing but a pack of aluminum foil and an iron. Just assemble your sandwiches, butter the outsides, wrap them in foil, put them on a flame-proof surface (like your favorite textbook or roommates sheets), and iron them until nice and toasty on both sides. About 10 minutes later, you have a perfect snack for late night refueling.

Want to amp things up a bit? A Cuban grilled cheese with pickles, Swiss, and ham can be made from ingredients found at any corner bodega. College is all about learning to multitask; to get your meal and your snack all at the same time by, just shove some potato chips right in there.

Or if you've got a date coming over, hit 'em with this antipasti grilled cheese. Nothing gets those amorous juices flowing like basil, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted peppers. Seal the deal with a brie and nutella melt for dessert.

» Check out 21+ ways to upgrade your grilled cheese!

Main Course: Ramen-Based Pasta

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No burners or hot plates in your dorm but you still want fresh-cooked pasta for dinner? No problem, just break out every college kid's go-to food: instant ramen. All you need is boiling water from your kettle. Cook the noodles according to package instructions, leaving out the seasoning packet. Meanwhile, microwave some pasta sauce or chili, along with a tub of cheese sauce or salsa con queso. Stir 'em all together, and you got yourself a poor man's spaghetti bolognese.

Faux Italian not your thing? Ramen is equally versatile as a Cold Peanut And Coconut Ramen Salad, or as Aloha Ramen, served up with Spam, pineapple, and an egg. A can of creamed corn and a packet of ramen will become an elegant ramen corn chowder, fancy enough for entertaining.

» Check out 30+ ways to upgrade your ramen!

Dessert: Chocolate Cake in a Mug

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[Photograph: Cakespy]

Thought your desserts were limited to Butterfingers and Smirnoff Ice? Think again. With this recipe, all you need is a mug and a microwave (no bowls!), and you'll have fresh, hot chocolate cake-in-a-cup in 12 minutes or less.

Cooking for a crowd? Try out these microwave chocolate peanut butter crunch bars, another no-bake-required treat. If this doesn't win 'em over, nothing will!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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