Making dishes for holiday potlucks is usually more pleasurable than transporting them to the occasion. There’s always the fear that things will tip over or spill in the trunk. Whenever you stop short at a light, you wonder whether your tart or cake will be intact when you get to the party or whether the top has flown off your casserole.
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I have watched with wonder as chefs and pastry chefs wrap food for transport. Learning their tricks has been one of the bonuses of working with them on their books. Chefs such as Sherry Yard and Jacquy Pfeiffer must wrap delicate tarts, cakes and other pastries for catered events and deliver them intact and beautiful. When I worked with Mark Peel, I observed as he used yards of plastic wrap to wrap full hotel pans and containers filled with sloshing liquids in such a way that they would arrive at their destinations without losing a splash or a drip.
Plastic, plastic, plastic
Plastic wrap — yards of it — is the tool used by most chefs. There are other, more eco-friendly materials now on the market for covering food containers (read on), but plastic wrap is still the most efficient for protecting large sheet pans, casseroles and Dutch ovens.
If you can find a place to keep it, I recommend you buy restaurant-strength plastic in an 18-inch wide roll. You can find these in package stores. The plastic is much easier to handle than household plastic rolls and much more convenient for wrapping.
Watch out, it’s hot: stews, soups and casseroles
If you need to transport a dish straight from the oven that’s so hot it will melt plastic, insulate the dish with foil or a dish towel first. Don’t wrap from the top to the bottom; pull out a long sheet of foil and set your dish on top of it. Pull the foil up, over and around the dish. If your foil isn’t wide enough to cover the entire dish (a 12-inch roll won’t be), you will need to do this with a few staggered sheets. Crimp the foil against the sides and edges of the baking dish so that it’s tight on the dish. Now do the same with a really long piece of plastic, setting the dish on top of the plastic and bringing the plastic all the way around the dish and back to the bottom, so that the dish is tightly enclosed. If the dish isn’t too hot, there’s no need to insulate it first. To make a really tight seal, wrap crosswise as well with a few sheets of plastic. Your dish should be completely enclosed in the plastic and there should be no way for the plastic to slip off.
To insulate with a dishtowel, cover the top with foil, set the dish on the towel and bring the towel up around the dish. Then wrap in plastic as instructed above.
If you are transporting something like a heavy stew pot with a lid, wrap as above, remembering to set the casserole on top of the long sheet of plastic and to bring the plastic up, over and tightly around the top of the pot (you won’t need foil unless it is coming straight from the oven) in two directions to secure the lid. Sometimes I tape the lid down first. Pull out a long sheet of plastic that will go about 1 1/3 times around the circumference of the pot. Twist it into a rope and tie it around the sealed pot just below the lid.
Transporting liquids without spills
Liquids (including dips) can be particularly worrisome. Even when you have a Tupperware or plastic container with a lid that snaps into place, there is always the chance that it could fall over and open up. Peel always double wrapped containers tightly in plastic, setting the container on top of the plastic and wrapping it all the way around the container twice. Sometimes he would also seal with the twisted plastic “rope” described above.
Packing hot food in a basket or a box
Pati Jinich, host of “Pati’s Mexican Table” on PBS, describes the way taco vendors in Mexico City wrap baskets of tacos to keep them warm. This strikes me as a good way to keep all sorts of dishes warm if transporting in a basket or a box. Line the basket or box that you will set your dish in with several wide layers of plastic. The plastic should cover the bottom and come up the sides of the basket or box and be large enough to fold over your dish or platter once you set it inside. Arrange two kitchen towels on top of the plastic. Set your dish on top of the towels (taco vendors place parchment or brown paper on top of the towels and set their tacos directly on top of the parchment, then cover the tacos with another sheet of parchment or brown paper). Cover with another towel and bring the edges of the plastic around from the sides of the basket or box to wrap.
Desserts: some assembly required
Pfeiffer says that it is often better not to bring a completely assembled cake to a party. “Some assembly or last minute finishing touches will create a great conversation topic; people are always interested in knowing how things are done or assembled,” he notes. If you do need to bring a fully assembled cake or tart, put it into a cake or pie box so that the top won’t be exposed and it won’t slip around.
Securing the food in your car
Once a dish is well wrapped or boxed you don’t need to worry about its contents sloshing out. But you still need to secure it in your car. I like to set casseroles and pots into bus trays or on sheet pans. Pfeiffer lays a sheet of shelf liner on the floor of the car or trunk. “They make great anti-slip surfaces. We use them when we deliver wedding cakes.” In France, my French friends would take large dishtowels and tie them around the dishes in two directions, creating a sort of sling that also has a handle. These will also prevent the dishes from slipping around. I prefer to set dishes on the floor behind the driver’s seat, but if there isn’t room and you need to use the trunk, just be sure your dishes are wedged in or on a nonslip surface like the shelf paper so they won’t slide around.
An eco-friendly alternative to plastic
Today there is an alternative to plastic wrap, a material called Abeego made from cotton, hemp, beeswax and jojoba oil. The material comes in sheets that you can mold over food items or containers. It will stick to the sides of containers and seal them well, and it can be washed and reused. The product is sold in various sizes, the largest of which is 13 by 20 inches. This might not be big enough for the kind of ultra-tight wrapping I’ve described above, but you can cover smaller containers with it and get a good seal, and you don’t have to worry about all that plastic.
I wish I’d known these chefs’ tricks decades ago when I was a caterer. I had plenty of sturdy containers for transporting food, but I did have one disaster on the way to a nearby party I was catering that could have been avoided with some careful wrapping. In the trunk of my car were a number of sheet pans filled with quiches and a big pot of refried black beans for tostadas. As I was getting off the freeway, I rear-ended a truck. It wasn’t a bad accident, and I wasn’t hurt, but all of the quiches went flying and doubled over on themselves, and the lid came off the black beans, which splattered all over my trunk. In tears, I called the artist who was hosting the party. She wasn’t far away and sent some friends to pick up what could be salvaged. It was my great good fortune that the party was for a group of sculptors: When I arrived with the rest of the food a little later, they had put my quiches back together again!
Main photo: Food wrapped for a potluck. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman