‘Bring a plate’ dilemma solved

Australian food writer Sophie Hansen. Photo: Pip Farquharson
Australian food writer Sophie Hansen. Photo: Pip Farquharson

Sophie Hanson’s latest book is all about getting together even when people are busy or when funds are limited or when we’re disinclined to cook for a crowd or a few.

"It’s about the generosity of friends who bring good things to our tables and how the whole experience is all the richer for it."

What Can I bring? is aimed at helping people in the situation when they offer to bring something but then their mind draws a blank when the answer is "bring something sweet" or "just a salad".

"It’s a bit to do with too much choice, a bit to do with wanting to bring something really good and different and a bit to do with general decision overwhelm."

The food writer, who lives on the family farm near Orange, New South Wales, has just spent a year working out the answer to the dilemma by creating a seasonal guide to what to bring for any occasion - winter picnics, fundraising stalls, birthday dinners and camping trips.

The idea, she says, is portable food, where every dish can mostly sit at room temperature for a while.

"It’s also a celebration of honest, country-style hospitality. I live in the country and it has been my experience that the "bring a plate" culture grows stronger the further inland you go."

It does not matter what is happening in the country - celebration, tragedy or natural event - it does not stop people from coming together at shared tables and people always bring something.

"Our gatherings are easier and more affordable, inclusive and interesting for it."

The occasions are also a way to get to know people that little bit better because they heard the story behind the cake or the memories that are tied up in that jar of special barbecue sauce.

Some of the recipes in the book have come from Hanson’s friends who agreed to share the dishes they love and share the most.

"Generosity is at the heart of cooking."

The book’s recipes are divided into seasons and occasions such as - spring, small bites for a kid’s party or a family barbecue; summer - a progressive dinner or salads that don’t wilt; autumn - biscuits for the tin or a family banquet, and winter - potluck dinner or soups for the thermos, among others.

She also includes advice on how to transport food to keep it hot or cold as well as tips for hosting a "bring a plate" gathering or attending one. Each recipe also includes travel advice.

The Book

Images and text from What Can I Bring? By Sophie Hansen, photography by Sophie Hansen. Published by Murdoch Books, RRP $55.

Plum and ricotta crostata

I spent a few years living in Italy in my 20s and during this time I fell for crostata in all its forms. I loved how whenever there was a dinner party or gathering, my friends would stop on the way at a pasticceria to buy a beautifully wrapped crostata to give to the host.

It’s just the thing to take to a celebration of any kind. Delicious on the day and also excellent as breakfast the day after, or perhaps your host might like to take some to work for morning tea and share around?

Either way, crostata keeps nicely for a few days and makes a lovely gift.

Serves 8-10


1 cup (320g) plum jam or other jam of your choice (apricot and blackberry are my favourites; quince is amazing, too)

¼ cup (55g) caster (superfine) sugar


1 ⅔ cups (250g) plain (all purpose) flour

100g icing (confectioners’) sugar

1 tsp grated lemon zest

1 tsp baking powder

A pinch of salt

½ cup (125g) cold butter, cubed

1 egg

1 egg yolk

Ricotta filling

1 cup (230g) fresh ricotta

¼ cup (30g) icing (confectioners’) sugar

1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped

3 eggs


To make the pastry, combine the flour, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Tip on to a work surface and add the butter, rubbing it into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse sand (with a few small pebbles). Add the egg and yolk and, using a light hand, bring the mixture together until you have a smooth dough (it’s OK if there are some streaks of butter). Form into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

For the filling, whisk together all the ingredients until well combined.

Place the jam in a small saucepan and gently heat, then set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

To roll out the crostata, first cut away about one-third of the pastry and roll out the remaining two-thirds until you have a large disc about 4mm thick. Gently transfer the pastry into a 22cm fluted, loose-bottomed tart tin (or a springform cake tin will be fine, too, in which case you will want to trim the edges of your pastry first so they are relatively even).

Trim any excess pastry, leaving a 1cm border and fold this down into the edge of the tin to ‘‘reinforce" the crostata’s side. Spoon the ricotta mixture on to the base of the pastry and top with dollops of jam. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into about ten strips.

Arrange five of these across the top of the tart and then spin it around and crisscross the remaining five strips in a lattice pattern on the other side, weaving the strips over and under each other.

Trim any excess pastry, sprinkle with the caster sugar and bake for 35 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.

Serve warm or chilled (if you’re serving it chilled, you’ll find it slices much more cleanly).

Travel advice

Once cooled, this crostata is a pretty good traveller. Just pop it in a tray or container so it can’t roll around the back of the car and it should be fine.

Baked pearled barley with all the early autumn veggies

This recipe does a few things well: firstly, it uses a heap of the beautiful vegetables in season around early autumn (think zucchini/courgette, tomato, corn and eggplant/aubergine).

Next, it feeds a load of people in one tasty package.

And, finally, it’s not at all hard to throw together and doesn’t mind being left out at room temperature for a while (within reason).

One more  - it’s almost tastier as leftovers reheated with buttered toast.

Serves 6-8 as a side


1 cup (200g) pearled barley

½ cup (60ml) olive oil

1 brown onion, diced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 zucchini (courgettes), cut into 2cm cubes

2 ears of corn, kernels cut off

3 medium tomatoes, diced

1 eggplant (aubergine), cut into 2cm cubes

2 cups (500ml) tomato passata (puréed tomatoes)

1 handful basil leaves

1 cup (60g) chunky breadcrumbs

1 cup (100g) freshly grated parmesan

1 cup (130g) mozzarella, torn into rough pieces


Rinse the pearled barley until the water runs clear then place in a saucepan and fill with cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for about 25 minutes, or until al dente, then drain.

Heat half the olive oil in a deep-sided ovenproof frying pan and cook the onion for about 15 minutes, or until completely soft and beginning to caramelise. Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Remove the onion and garlic from the pan and set aside.

Return the pan to the heat, add a splash more oil, increase the heat to high and fry the zucchini and corn kernels until softened and starting to colour, about 10 minutes. Transfer these to the dish with the onion. Add a splash more oil and fry the tomatoes and eggplant for about 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200°C .

Return all of the vegetables to the frying pan and add the passata with ½ cup (125ml) water and the basil leaves, then stir to combine. Season well with salt and black pepper. Add the barley to the pan and stir to combine.

Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and cheese, and bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy.

Travel advice

Cover tightly with foil to keep warm; it will sit happily at room temperature for a reasonable amount of time, getting more delicious. You can also make it a couple of days in advance and keep it chilled, then reheat on arrival or serve at room temperature.

Braised beef short ribs

This is Ree’s recipe, and it’s an absolute winner. I have made it many times since she shared it, always with great success.

It is easy to bring together, it tastes wonderful and is a main dish of substance - a great thing to take to any gathering.

Serves 6-8


1.2kg beef short ribs

2 handfuls green beans, trimmed


3 Tbsp olive oil

1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 Tbsp smoked paprika

½ tsp cayenne pepper

1 Tbsp salt

1 tsp ground black pepper

Cooking sauce

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 brown onion, diced

1 heaped Tbsp tomato paste (concentrated purée)

⅓ cup (80ml) Worcestershire sauce

2 cups (500ml) chicken stock


Trim the ribs of any excess fat and place them in a large container. Combine the marinade ingredients in a small bowl, add to the ribs and mix and rub to coat them all well. Cover and place in the fridge to marinate overnight, or for at least 4-6 hours.

Heat the barbecue or a hotplate to high and sear the ribs on all sides until they are nicely browned. Set aside while you make the cooking sauce.

Preheat the oven to 140°C .

Heat the oil in a large casserole dish over medium heat and cook the onion for about 10 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the tomato paste, stock and Worcestershire sauce and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and add the ribs. Transfer to the oven and cook slowly for 4-6 hours, or until the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone. Add the green beans for the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Serve warm.

Travel advice

Try to time the cooking so the ribs will be done just before heading out the door. They should keep their heat for a while, but if you have access to a hotplate or oven, perhaps give them a quick reheat before serving. Wrap the casserole dish in a couple of tea towels and ensure the lid is securely tied down, then tuck into a laundry basket with some towels to keep as much heat in as possible.