What to make when you 'bring a plate'

Popular idea: A plate of lamingtons
Popular idea: A plate of lamingtons Photo: Supplied

I recently arrived in Australia and I have been asked to bring a plate to a school function. Can you please shed some light? D. Tan

The complete phrase is "Ladies bring a plate. Gentlemen a donation." This refers to a plate of food, generally home-made, taken to a community event. The idea is that if every person attending brings a small plate of food there will be enough to feed the entire group. The reality is that there are mountains of lamingtons and swiss rolls left over. It is important that the "plate" provided is suitable to the time of the day. So if it is a morning tea, one may bring a teacake or perhaps some scones. If it is an afternoon tea then it could be cake or slice. If it is a lunchtime event, one may offer to bring a salad or side dish. If it is a dinner, one may bring a hot dish or some cold meats. It depends on the occasion. It is best to get in contact with the organiser of the event and ask for advice, perhaps offering to prepare your specialty. (My mother is still invited to events as she always brings a plate of her sausage rolls.) The food on the plate is generally family-friendly. A butter cake would be preferable to a blue-cheese dip, a vegetable quiche to anchovy flan. Under no circumstances follow the instruction literally and just bring "a plate". I remember, many years ago, a German mother who had recently emigrated sent her daughter to school with an empty plate, where she was greeted with howls of derisive laughter.

When I cut my cakes they crumble and I end up disappointed. What can I do? R. Hansen

Lower your expectations, dear woman, lower your expectations. If you imagine that all your baking will fail you will never be disappointed. Alternatively, you could try to allow your cake to cool on the rack in the tin when you remove it from the oven. This allows the crust and crumb (exterior and interior) of the cake to harden a little. Avoid stressing the cake by keeping it level when removing it from the tin. Most importantly, cut your cake with a good bread knife. A blunt knife will pull the crumb away. (I recommend the entry-level Swiss-made Victorinox bread knife). Bread knives with scalloped blades are also good for slicing really ripe tomatoes (not a situation you should find yourself in at this time of the year) and ham on the bone.

What is mock duck made from? P. Fernandez

Gluten. There is an entire culinary culture in Asia based on imitation vegetarian food that looks similar to and has a similar texture to animal flesh but which is made from gluten. If you have ever tried to wash bread dough from a kitchen scourer you will be familiar with the stringy strands of gluten, a wheat protein, left after the starch has washed away. Clever cooks combine this gluten with oil and fermented sauces to make partially convincing imitation duck, abalone, even mock mutton. You can often find tinned mock flesh in supermarkets. Some readers may recall a more Anglo version of mock duck, which dates to at least the early 20th century and gained currency in wartime Britain. Sausage meat was "stretched" with ingredients that might include apples, onions or breadcrumbs; if no meat at all was available, at least one recipe substituted lentils. Some recipes directed that the resulting mix be shaped "like a duck" before baking. 

How do I kill off fruit flies without spraying the kitchen with insecticide? J.Croll

Remove old fruit from your fruit bowl. Trap fruit flies by placing a piece of banana, perhaps some skin, in a small container, covering tightly in plastic film and piercing a hole in the top with a skewer. The fruit flies will be attracted to fruit but will be unable to escape your banana-filled death trap.

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