Sharing the load at Christmas is always a good idea, and one of the best ways to do that is to bring a plate. A domestic kitchen isn't really made for catering for dozens of people at a time, so having guests bring a plate of food is an excellent solution. Here's how to do it well.
Check in with the host
You don't have to try to please everyone, but a quick check with the host whether there's anyone with specific dietary requirements is always a good idea. It might help you avoid bringing a meat tray to a party full of vegans, or knocking up a batch of your famous peanut brittle for a host whose child has a severe peanut allergy.
If you want to go completely over and above you can make a little place card for your dish saying what it is and what it has in it. If it's an unusual dish it might even save you having to explain it a dozen times.
If you have a specific dish in mind, why not run it up the flagpole? Give the host a buzz and ask if it's appropriate, and nine times out of 10 your host will give you the green light straight away.
If you happen to be hosting, there's nothing wrong with specifying to your guests what you think will work. Instead of just the general "salad" or "dessert" don't be shy to shoot your guests a link and ask if they'd be comfortable making a specific dish.
Bringing a plate isn't a surprise party. There's no need to reveal what you've made on the day.
Black pepper teriyaki wings are a cheap and cheerful crowd-pleaser. Photo: William Meppem
Don't cater the whole party
The idea of a bring-a-plate dish isn't that you feed the entire crowd. A good rule of thumb is to make the volume of your dish represent about 1½ servings for those in your group. If you've been asked to bring a salad to a party with 20 guests and you're a family of four, bring enough to feed six. You certainly don't need to feed 20. Maybe try my Big bruschetta salad or Romesco salad.
If it's individual or bite-sized portions then perhaps one per person isn't a bad idea, but generally leave those kinds of specifics to the host and opt for dishes that are more easily shared instead. If you do want to bring more individual servings, a big batch of chicken wings is a good choice. Try my golden syrup wings or these easy black pepper teriyaki ones.
Think about transport
Transport is the whole ball game when you're bringing a plate. Choose a dish that travels easily, and specifically for the amount of time you'll be on the road. Don't pack an ice-cream cake for a 3-hour drive in the middle of summer.
Desserts such as trifles and my Chrissamisu are constrained in a bowl, so will likely be easier to move around than a towering cake. Invest in a good quality cake carrier if you're going to be transporting cakes.
This advice also applies to savoury dishes. Make sure you choose something that transports easily such as these lamb ribs. There's nothing wrong with bringing your dish in a sealed plastic container and then transferring it to your serving plate when you arrive. It can often be better for the dish, too.
Pack some grated parmesan for Adam Liaw's portable pasta alla Norma (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Don't peak to soon
You won't be sitting down to eat as soon as you arrive, so often your meal can be sitting around for a while before you get to it. Keep leaves chilled and salad dressing separate or you'll be dealing with a soggy mess come mealtime. If you want to keep the whipped cream in a container and decorate a pavlova when you arrive, that's probably fine, too.
A good tip for keeping things warm or cool is to use a cooler bag in either instance. The reflective-lined insulated bags you get from the supermarket can keep things warm as well as cool. Often for a picnic I'll throw a whole cast-iron pot of noodles or pasta into an insulated bag (pot and all) and it'll keep warm for hours.
Make sure you've gotten everything as far along as you can. Bringing a bit of already-grated parmesan for pasta or whipped cream for a pav is a good idea, but bringing a wedge of cheese or carton of cream and asking for a grater, or whisk or cake stand and spatula is probably best avoided because…
Don't make extra work for your host
I once had a friend turn up to a bring-a-plate party with – and I am not kidding – the ingredients to assemble a croquembouche. They asked the host for a saucepan and proceeded to make caramel, spin sugar, and spend the better part of an hour putting it all together. It was a lovely thought, but probably not the best thing to thrust onto someone when they're trying to throw a party.
Washing your plate to bring home is fine, but turning your host's party into your own personal pastry kitchen is not.
Find Adam Liaw's new bring-a-plate recipes in Good Food in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun Herald and Sunday Age on sale December 6.