You won't be baking a cake or preparing dinner from the recipe book likely to have the most impact on Kiwi kitchens this year. Instead, you could be cooking up the next generation of creative thinkers.

The Kitchen Science Cookbook comes out just in time for the school holidays. It features 50 of Dr Michelle "Nanogirl" Dickinson's favourite science recipes brought together in a book, which is glossy and gorgeous and uses ingredients you probably already have in the pantry or craft drawer.

When I topped up our supplies — five different food colourings, a large container of baking powder, cornflour and a packet of balloons — the supermarket check-out operator asked whether I was baking for a birthday party, and seemed intrigued to hear it was for kitchen science experiments.

"Sounds like the sort of thing I would have liked," she said.

Advertisement

And that's just the point.

Dickinson is a scientist on a mission, promoting the idea that science doesn't just happen in a classroom or laboratory but can be found everywhere and is for everyone. Though she established New Zealand's first nanomechanical testing lab and was a senior lecturer in chemical and materials engineering at the University of Auckland, it's her "Nanogirl" alter ego that most will recognise.

The Weekend Herald columnist is in demand at schools and events around the country because of her knack of engaging the non-scientists among us with the wonders of her chosen discipline. The idea for the book followed feedback Dickinson received at her shows.

She talks of meeting mothers who asked what they could do to encourage their daughters to feel they were competent at science, even though they felt like it hadn't been "their thing" at school.

"There was a real lack of confidence among mothers, who didn't want their daughters to grow up scared of science like they were but didn't know how to encourage their daughters because they were afraid they might get the answers wrong," she says.

"I'd be at a fundraising event where these same people had baked galore; every cupcake, every brownie had been baked by the same people who were telling me they weren't good at science, so I said, 'but you're all great at science, you just made this cupcake', and they were like, 'no, no, no — that's baking; baking's easy because you just follow the recipe and it works.'

"And I would say, 'but have you ever had your cake go flat?' They'd say, 'yes, of course, but all you do is alter the temperature of the oven or add baking soda', so I said, 'oh, you mean, you experiment!' and they realised they had been scientists in their kitchens for a very long time."

Making those comparisons gave Dickinson the idea to make her recipe book just like the cookery books most of us are more familiar with.

"I turned my home kitchen into a lab to start testing the recipes."

They're grouped into nine sections, such as colourful experiments or electricity experiments; the largest is for edible experiments and that includes unicorn noodles, fun foamisicles and edible earthworms (no actual worms are harmed in the making or execution of the recipe).

Dickinson started with 350 potential recipes then, via Facebook, sent out a request for potential testers. She anticipated five of her friends with kids would say yes; 24 hours later, she had 2500 would-be volunteers and had to hire someone to work through the applicants. "From that, I realised there was definitely a need for a book like this."

Having a specific idea of what she was looking for in her testers helped: single parents on low incomes, particularly mothers; women who had said they weren't confident about science and, at the other end of the spectrum, PhD-qualified scientists who would spot an anomaly a mile away. Recipes with ingredients that the testers didn't have, had never heard of, or thought were too expensive were quickly jettisoned.

Doubtless, Dickinson would have had no trouble picking up a publishing deal but she opted to self-publish because it gave her more control of the process. A Kickstarter campaign raised $80,000 for printing; a team of family, friends and Nanogirl Lab staff — along with recipe testers from 24 countries — gave practical assistance. She describes the project as a genuine family affair; father-in-law Paul Davis took the photos while her mother-in-law, Val, proofread and edited the text.

"I wanted it to be beautiful and accessible, use glossy paper that was wipeable, and I wanted to have enough copies to donate to charities and schools, and it became obvious I wasn't going to be able to achieve that unless I self-published," says Dickinson. "I knew nothing about publishing; I now know it's a lot of work."

The result is the book she dreamed of. Dickinson couldn't be happier, albeit slightly nervous as launch date nears. So far, feedback to advance copies has been extremely positive. She's hearing stories about kids, especially girls, feeling more confident about science and, a somewhat unexpected bonus, about whole families meeting in the kitchen to try out some of the experiments (and then cook dinner together).

Lowdown
The Kitchen Science Cookbook
By Dr Michelle Dickinson
($50)