It’s Christmas time and there is a constant flow of visitors of all ages dropping in to wish you well. Canapés and nibbles to offer your guests should be an easy way to feed any size crowd without too much washing up to do, and should allow you to spend time enjoying the party rather than being in the kitchen. Ideally, aim for things you can make ahead of time, are suitably festive and can be made out of ingredients that you will most probably already have in your store cupboard or fridge.
For those of us with grandchildren, getting them to join you in the kitchen to help prepare the nibbles is, in my experience, a really great way to spend some time together and have fun. It also builds confidence and helps them to learn about ingredients, and even the most fussy eater may suddenly discover they like flavours they had hitherto refused to even contemplate! It’s a small Christmas miracle that always thrills me, and of course children love to have any opportunity to show off their kitchen skills.
Here are some ideas and easy recipes using ingredients that most of us have in stock at this time of year.
Nothing says Christmas food so clearly to me as this much under-rated fruit. I use chestnuts in all sorts of recipes, both sweet and savoury. For a simple rustic nibble, why not simply roast some lovely fresh shiny, fat chestnuts in the oven (don’t forget to slit the skins first to prevent them bursting, and roast them all in a single flat layer at 220 degrees centigrade for between 15 to 25 minutes, depending on their size). Serve them piping hot in a pretty bowl with some spicy mulled wine or cider.
Alternatively, you could do something a bit more sophisticated that you can make well ahead of time, such as this delectable treat.
- 300 g raw chestnuts or 300 g unsweetened chestnut purée
- 50 g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
- 120 ml whipping cream
- To decorate: candied violets and/or grated dark chocolate
1. Slit the skins of the raw chestnuts and boil in water until softened, then drain, peel and puree in a food processor until smooth. Or just open the tin of ready-made chestnut puree and place in a bowl, then mash with a fork to loosen, adding a splash of water if necessary.
2. Blend with the sugar and stir in the cocoa powder.
3. Whip the cream until it holds soft peaks and fold this into the chestnut mixture.
4. Spoon into small cups or shot glasses and chill for at least 3 hours.
5. Serve topped with candied violets and/or grated dark chocolate.
There always seems to be lots of blue cheese around at Christmas time. In my household it tends to be Gorgonzola, although both of these ideas would also work with Stilton or any other blue cheese.
Dipped nutty grapes
1. Melt some blue cheese in a small pan over a low heat until softened and very loose but not liquefied.
2. Thread some grapes on to cocktail sticks, one large grape per stick, and dip in the melted cheese to coat.
3. Dip the coated grapes in chopped walnuts and pistachio nuts and turn to cover them completely.
4. Arrange on a plate and serve.
Cheese and apple sandwiches
1. Thinly slice some whole small red skinned apples across the core.
2. Rub the slices with lemon juice to prevent them going brown.
3. Sandwich two slices of apple together securely with softened blue cheese and arrange the apple sandwiches on a dish, sprinkled with chopped walnuts.
If you want to jazz them up, you could tie each apple sandwich together using leek or spring onion strips so they look like a Christmas parcel, and you could of course use other soft cheese to sandwich the apple slices together.
Walnuts are also a perfect partner for any blue cheese. You could simply sandwich together two perfect walnut halves with a little scoop of softened blue cheese and create a great festive pile of them on a plate.
Dates are very much a part of Christmas, but soon become a bit boring when just eaten on their own. This is a very simple way of turning them into a really special but very simple canapé.
Dates wrapped in Parma ham
The combination of the sweet flavour of the dates and the salty sweetness of the ham makes these truly delicious.
Makes 20 canapés
- 20 dried dates
- 20 small cubes of Parmesan or other hard cheese of your choice
- 10 slices of Parma ham, halved
- 1 tsp vegetable oil for greasing
1. Pre-heat the oven to 18 C/375 F/Gas Mark 4.
2. Lightly grease a baking sheet large enough for all the dates.
3. Remove the stone from the dates and replace the stone with a little
cube of cheese.
4. Wrap each date in half a slice of Parma ham and fix each one closed with a wooden cocktail stick and lay them on the lightly greased baking sheets.
5. Slip into the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the ham starts to crisp up. Serve hot.
If you prefer a no cooking option, just replace the date stone with soft marzipan or half a walnut and a little cube of cheese instead.
Even the dullest jar of plain olives in brine can be made into something truly special if you simply drain and wash them thoroughly, then marinade them yourself with a whole variety of different flavours. For example:
Sprinkle the drained and washed olives generously with vodka and ground red chilli to taste. Mix together with your hands and leave to stand for about 2 hours before serving, scattered with chopped herbs and a little grated lemon zest.
Or coat lightly in olive oil and add lightly crushed fennel seeds and a few slices of lemon, coarsely chopped. Mix and then leave to stand for 2 hours before serving.
Or mix the olives with enough olive oil to cover and add crushed black peppercorns, a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic, a handful of chopped parley and a squeeze of lemon.
Once you start, you can invent as many combinations as you like, and I promise you will never buy expensive marinated olives again!
Having made the Christmas cake, what to do with any leftover marzipan? I don’t know about you, but I always seem to have plenty left! Simply get out the rolling pin to roll it out on a surface dusted lightly with icing sugar, to a thickness of about 2 cm. Then cut into stars and diamond shapes with cookie cutters, perhaps with the help of small grandchildren! Dip the shapes into melted dark chocolate and leave to set on a sheet of non-stick baking paper for about 30 minutes. Take them off the paper using a metal spatula and arrange on a platter or board to serve, sprinkled with silver or golden balls.
We used to only ever eat this wonderful delicacy at Christmas time, in my youth it was considered to be much too special to have at other times of the year. These days, it is really commonplace and appears literally all year-round, although perhaps at Christmas we sometimes make a special effort to buy it from a specialist supplier. Wherever the salmon comes from, you can whizz up a few slices or scraps in a food processor with cream cheese, black pepper and a little lemon juice to make a thick paste that crucially still has plenty of texture. Use this to fill little “boats” made with the leaves of a red endive; arrange in a circle on a round plate and serve with lemon wedges. Or, line a whole firm Brie or Camembert, split open into 2 discs, with slices of smoked salmon before sandwiching the cheese back together and serving in wedges.
Whatever you are eating this Merry Christmas, I wish you Buon Appetito and happy times with those you love!
Buy Valentina Harris' book Fiori di Zucca from the Saga Bookshop