Easy on the canapés!
If you ask me – and my family – what are the three best canapés, the answers will be first, a kettle-fried crisp balanced with a large dollop of Ranch at one end, second, a tortilla chip dipped into a bowl of freshly made guacamole, and third a pile of pistachio nuts – the bigger the better…
Okay, these are not really canapés, more like table snacks. Canapés are those small finger-sized savoury and salty morsels, usually on toast, or pastry, which guests can nibble at whilst drinking and socialising before a meal. However, our dips and nuts certainly fulfil the same function as a canapé: they are salty and nibbled before a meal.
Unfortunately, whilst, this style of snacking can promote goodwill among family and friends, it can also create new stresses. Tasty table snacks may initially whet the appetite, but if over indulged they can spoil it. We have often found it necessary to prise bowls of Ranch gently from the grips of guests who have become entranced in a robotic sequence of dipping and eating.
The answer to this problem is to provide proper canapés. Our choice canapé in these circumstances is smoked salmon. There are many fancy ways with smoked salmon: swirled breads with cream cheese and dill; stuffed in vol-au-vents with savoury custards; or draped over blinis with caviar. However, I find the best way, is the simplest: slices of smoked salmon served on pieces of buttered toast (brown bread) dressed with cracked pepper and served with lemon wedges (capers, chopped shallots, dill and chives optional extras). In many ways, this is the perfect canapé, very appetizing, but just a little too rich to eat in excess.
The Italians have a way with canapés. They should do – they are expert at the preliminary and anticipatory parts of a meal, such as apertivo (little snacks served with an early evening drink) or anti-pasta (small plates of delicatessen favourites eaten at the start of a meal) and even primo (a small course provided in anticipation of the second part of the meal). The homely crostini is a lovely Italian canapé. Little round toasts topped with a variety of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. The most distinctive, and the one we make most often is chicken livers on toast; trust me they are delicious.
A favourite American family canapé is devilled eggs (boiled eggs cut in half and re-filled with the yolks mixed with mayonnaise, cayenne/paprika and sprinkled with chives). Although these are certainly tasty, it does seem odd to supply platefuls of a sulphurous and gassy titbit to people socialising in a crowded room.
Sometimes, it is not the nature of the actual canapé that can raise concerns, but the actual canapés themselves. Attending formal, early evening work do’s, or private views and launches can be canapé hell. At this time of the day, many guests may find themselves caught in a cusp between work and a proper meal and may develop an over-zealous appetite. In worst cases, it can result in the stalking of servers or hovering around the service doors waiting for fresh batches of canapés to exit. Sufferers of this syndrome might occasionally muster sufficient poise, to enquire politely about the canapés, and patiently await the reply.
“… and this is a wattle seed cracker, king crab mousse, with pickled yuzu, squid ink beads and sea lettuce shoots.”
“Ah,” comes the reply, “Thank you, yes, I’ll have one of those, ahem… and I’ll just take a few more for my friends over there…”
Spare a thought for the poor chefs who have laboured all day over canapés only to witness ravenous guests wolfing down their morsels in a flash, oblivious to the skills and ingredients invested in their creations.
I know the feeling; I too have worked all day over canapés. I’ve held my nerve after the third lot of split mayonnaise, juggled dry ice for mini cheese and apple ice cream cones, buried myself in Escoffier texts to inspire a Maltaise mousse, tracked-down maza harina for prawn antojitos, and bravely cooked batch after batch of béchamel to get just the right consistency for jamon croquettes.
So why go to all the trouble? Well, for those cooks with the right disposition canapés are chance to create a little showpiece, a perfect fusion of flavour and ingredients – and a personal expression of creativity and culinary skills.
I’ve made the bar a few times, once whilst exploring ways to make canapés using gorgonzola. The idea came from a cheeseburger – but miniaturised. I home baked mini brioche buns and cooked prime fillet steak very rare, then assembled with a spot of mayonnaise, small slice of steak and a scoop of picante gorgonzola. Oh, man was that good…
Another came from frustrations of trying to wrap asparagus in pastry. Nothing worked to my satisfaction; each attempt was either floppy, limp, dry, or burnt. Back to the drawing board – which is where I had the idea of spring roll pastry. This deep-fried beautifully. Further, if I tied the ends of pastry I could fill the roll with cheese, which would melt but not spill out during cooking. I finished the canapé by cutting the ends with a knife. A unique canapé – and my own little masterpiece.
So, I may have earned a few canapé stripes in my time, yet after years of making various appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, finger-foods and amuse-bouches, I still wonder if it is possible to beat the reliable trinity of Ranch, guacamole and pistachios.