Our celebrity cook, Annie Assheton, is looking forward to Christmas and is in the kitchen preparing small bites that pack a big punch!
Canapés are possibly my favourite food to make and Christmas offers plenty of opportunities to do so. They offer an opportunity to try unusual flavour amalgamations and produce something quite punchy that might be overpowering in full size. A reduction in dimensions should be matched by a concentration in flavour; an intense bite is just the thing to whet the appetite for the principal courses to come. This is a chance to be bold, ramp up the spice and make sure those single bites pack the necessary punch to make your guests anticipate the delights to come.
Christmas Canapé Inspiration
Canapés have the added advantage of not being constrained by individual likes, dislikes and intolerances; I tend to produce two or three different types before dinner and so feel far less inhibited by my guests’ preferences than I do for the starter, main course and pudding, which really do need to appeal to everyone. Having listed all three courses, I often in fact serve several canapés in place of a starter. It gives people more opportunity to meet and mingle before dinner and means that once everyone is sitting down the host and hostess can join them and enjoy the party rather than keep having to leap up and down to attend to the main course.
So many things look better in miniature and food is no exception. This is one occasion when looks really do matter (first impressions count, after all) as does uniformity, which I think is absolutely critical in their presentation. I am slightly obsessive when I’m preparing platters of canapés; each piece must be as identical as possible and if they are being laid out on a flat surface they must be facing the same way and positioned exactly equidistant from each other whether there are six pieces or 60. But this emphasis on precision needn’t mean things have to get characterless; quite the opposite in fact. This is a chance to use your imagination, be flamboyant, even theatrical and create something really eye catching and celebratory.
Crostini and mini toasts
I always make my own crostini out of part bake baguettes. Simply slice them thinly (one baguette makes about 30 pieces) then brush them on both sides with oil before putting into an oven pre-heated to 180°C for about ten minutes. My oven isn’t the most even in terms of heat so I turn the tray around half way through, and usually turn each crostini over at the same time. Towards the end of the cooking time you do need to watch them like a hawk and if they’re not quite golden brown I put them back in for only one minute at a time, sometimes removing a few of them to a wire rack while the others go back in for a tiny bit longer. It might all sound a bit obsessive but a little bit of care at this stage will result in uniformly golden crostini to form a perfect base for your canapé.
Mini toasts are also home baked with a slightly unusual but extremely straightforward preparation technique. You need to cut the crusts off some very ordinary sliced white bread and then use your rolling pin to roll it out as thinly as possible. Use a breadknife to neaten the edges and cut the flattened slice into nine equal-sized squares. Then, just brush each side with oil and bake in the oven for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown; the same rules as for crostini outlined above apply. In fact, the best way to combat any potential sogginess for both of these bases is to use plenty of oil and to allow them to develop a really good golden colour. Both the mini toasts and crostini can be prepared in advance and keep very well in an airtight container.
As a rule, everything that comes out of my kitchen is homemade, even if it was made well in advance but there are a couple of exceptions. One is puff pastry which I must admit I have never made myself, and the other is croustade which come in a box of 24 from the supermarket. They are so thin, crispy and perfectly formed it’s highly unlikely I could ever replicate them myself and they are brilliant to have in your cupboard, where they keep for ages in their unopened packaging, just in case you need to produce canapés unexpectedly.
Oh, there’s another too, and I know it is very easy to make cocktail sized blinis at home but the shop bought ones are really good and have the advantage of satisfying my insistence that everything should be identically-sized, which my homemade ones never quite are.
Cheese shortbreads, however, are very much homemade and can be used either as a pre-dinner nibble in their own right or as the base for a canapé. Simply blitz 150g plain flour, 100g cold cubed butter and 75g strong hard cheese (whatever is looking a bit senior in the fridge and needs using up) in a food processor with a pinch of salt and then bring together with a large egg yolk. If it needs more liquid to come together you can add some very cold water but I usually manage without.
One approach is then to shape it into a cylinder, about 3cm in diameter, and wrap tightly in cling film. If you tighten the ends very thoroughly before knotting them it will form a beautifully uniform shape. This then goes into the fridge to chill for at least 45 minutes before you cut it into discs and pop them straight onto a baking sheet to be cooked at 180°C for about 10 minutes (the cooking time depends on how thick they are).
The advantage of this approach is that the dough gets less handling and added flour than if you roll it out and have to keep re-rolling to use up the whole thing. However, it does limit you to a single, round shape, which can be perfect if you are using it for a base but, a for Christmas, possibly not as celebratory as they could be! At this time of year, for a more festive approach I like to roll the chilled dough out on a lightly floured surface before stamping out star shapes with a small star cutter.
Whichever approach you take, you can either leave them as they are or brush them with some beaten egg and, if you like, sprinkle them with some smoked paprika, poppy seeds or sesame seeds. A combination of all four options is my favourite. To keep the shape as clean as possible, it’s best to let them chill again for 20 minutes before baking if you have time.
If you are making these anyway, it’s really worth preparing a double batch and freezing the cut but pre-cooked biscuits on a flat sheet. Once frozen they can be put in a freezer bag and will be ready to go straight into the oven from frozen for an instant solution for any unexpected guests. I should also mention that there is absolutely no need to be limited to a simple hard cheese flavour for these little savoury biscuits. In fact the opportunities here are endless. You could use a blue cheese instead, creaming it into the mix along with the butter or you could add some finely chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme or sage would all work well) or you could leave out the cheese altogether and use some Dijon mustard instead.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that soggy bottoms are supremely undesirable and many canapé bases will sadly start to lose their crunch not long after being filled. Because of this they need to be finished off not long before you serve them, but what you can do is choose toppings that can be prepared well in advance so they are ready to use.
Salmon canapé options
Salmon is an obvious choice, it lends that celebratory feeling, is almost universally enjoyed and is wonderfully versatile. Blinis with smoked salmon and crème fraiche are lovely but have been slightly done to death although it’s easy to see (or taste) why when that combination of flavours is so delicious and blinis have the massive advantage of not going soggy once they have been toasted and topped.
I prefer to do something along the same lines but slightly different using sake marinated salmon and wasabi. Simply dice some good quality fresh salmon into very small cubes and marinate in some sake for about 15 minutes. While that’s happening, mix a small amount of wasabi paste into some full fat crème fraiche, tasting as you go until it’s just on the edge of too strong. Wasabi paste is very thick and it can be quite hard to blend it evenly, especially when it has been in the fridge, so I tend to break down a teaspoon of it with a small amount of crème fraiche before adding that mixture, bit by bit, to the bowl. Don’t forget to toast the cocktail sized blinis, whether they are homemade or shop bought, and when they are cool top with a spoon of wasabi crème fraiche and a few cubes of salmon. Sprinkle over a pinch of lime zest and finish with a grinding of black pepper and perhaps a sprig of dill or chive.
Something else you can do with smoked or fresh salmon is to make a quick salmon mousse and use it to fill croustade or top toasts or crostini. This could be joined by a slither of smoked salmon and topped with a chopped mix of capers, dill and lemon zest or maybe just a dollop of crème fraiche and a piece of chive or some faux caviar and dill. As I mentioned, salmon is supremely versatile; just remember to season well with salt, pepper and plenty of lemon juice although if you’re using smoked salmon do taste first before adding salt.
For my Christmas crostini I would choose this very simple but probably my most beloved canapé of all time. The crostini is topped with a seasoned mixture of crème fraiche and creamed horseradish, ideally piped into a neat ball. Against this is laid a leaf of flat leaf parsley (positioned so that it will stick out slightly) and then a slice of very rare but well seared venison fillet. This one is all about celebrating a top quality ingredient and showing it off to its best advantage. Beef fillet works really well here too. The trick is to cut your fillet into canons, about 1.5 inches across and to dry them well before oiling, seasoning thoroughly and adding to a seriously hot pan for one minute on all four sides. Venison fillet will often be about the right dimensions anyway, but beef fillet needs trimming to size.
Pear and blue cheese canapés
The mini toast canapé I would choose for this time of year involves very classically Christmas flavours; blue cheese, pear and mulled wine. I usually use Dolcelatte for this, because it creams really easily but you could use any other you prefer. Mix it together with mascarpone until it’s completely smooth (with a ration of about 2:1 cheese to mascarpone) and add lots of finely chopped chives. Spoon or, preferably, pipe this mix onto your crostini and top with a shard of pear which has been poached (peeled but whole) until just soft in red wine with sugar, cinnamon, star anise, orange and any other festive flavours you would like to add. Just be aware that cut into small pieces one pear will go a very long way, although you could choose to kill two birds with one stone and do some extra pears to serve for pudding!
Another excellent canapé choice is to make a very quick smoked mackerel pâté (carefully pin bone the mackerel first, then blitz it with cream cheese and a squeeze of lemon) and use that to fill your croustade. This is gorgeous topped with a small blob of cranberry jelly and either a slither of sushi ginger (available from most supermarkets these days) or a grating of lime zest. It would work very well on crostini or mini toasts too.
I mentioned earlier the issue of softness developing if you top or fill your base too early. For pre-dinner canapés I would use one of the crostini, croustade or mini toast ideas above which would be finished off just before guests arrive. I’d then perhaps serve some blinis which can be prepared a few hours earlier without danger of them spoiling, and finish off which something that needs almost no last minute attention at all. This might be, especially on a very cold day, a shot glass of chestnut soup which has been keeping warm on the back of the cooker or some of the cheese biscuits mentioned above, or simply some peeled quail eggs with a spiced celery salt.
An old fashioned dip!
Something else that will stand up very well to waiting around is a dip. This might sound rather old fashioned and predictable but there are still some unusual and surprising options.
The recipe for beetroot and walnut hummus below can be served in a bowl with sliced pitta bread or bread sticks alongside or shaped into a quenelle and placed on a piece of little gem. The vibrant colour of the beetroot looks fabulous against the pale green lettuce.
Beetroot and Walnut Hummus Recipe
250g raw beetroot (small ones ideally)
50g whole walnuts
1 tbsp cumin seeds
25 white bread with crusts removed
1 tbsp tahini
1 clove garlic
Juice 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
Twist off the beetroot tops and put them whole into a saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring them to a boil and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes depending on their size. Strain them and when cool enough to handle slip off their skins (you might like to use gloves for that bit). Chop into cubes and leave to cool.
While they are cooking, get the rest of the ingredients ready. Put the walnuts on a flat baking tray and toast for five minutes in the oven at 200˚C leave those to cool as well. Toast the cumin seeds for a few minutes in a dry frying pan, until beginning to colour, then grind thoroughly with a pestle and mortar.
Process the bread into crumbs, and then add the cooled beetroot, 1 tsp of the ground cumin, the walnuts, tahini, garlic, and ½ the lemon juice. When well combined taste and adjust the flavour with more cumin, lemon juice and salt and pepper as necessary. It’s pretty much always necessary to make some adjustments here but it’s best to do it bit by bit until it’s perfect.
To make this practically instant you could use ready cooked beetroot (just make sure it’s not the pickled variety) and ground cumin. The flavour of the cumin won’t be as intense, so you may need to add a little more.