They may be small, but creating canapés is no easy feat. It takes hours or even days to create what is consumed in just seconds! Every single part of a canapé is carefully considered by the chef before it lands on your plate – and that’s the beauty of it. Despite their small size, canapés are complex and creative testaments to a chef’s skilful talent and ability to fuse colour, taste, and texture on the plate.
As The Independent says, “each small mouthful [of a canapé] is a chance for the chef to exhibit limitless culinary trickery”. But what’s the process behind this complex canapé creation? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how chefs develop the decadent morsels we call canapés.
What is a canapé?
Canapés are small pieces of food that are traditionally served before (or instead of) dinner and designed to be easy to eat. They can usually be eaten in just one or two bites, with little mess or effort involved. Most canapés consist of a base of bread or pastry topped with various ingredients and flavourings. You’ll often see canapés paired with cocktails, as you can eat them with one hand while you hold a drink in your other hand. That’s why they’re the perfect type of catering for a cocktail party.
What is the history of canapés?
The word canapé comes from the French word for sofa. But we’re not talking about slouchy leather sofas you see in your living room – we’re talking about those elegant sofas you’d see in the palace Versailles, with delicate metal legs and arms and beautiful upholstery. So you can imagine the kind of elite imagery a canapé evokes.
They first originated in the mid 1800s after a chef was experimenting with hors d’oeuvres and put savoury toppings on a piece of bread. So why the term canapé? The topping on the bread was like someone sitting on a sofa… oh, the obscurity of it all!
What’s the difference between canapés and hors d’oeuvres?
Many people wonder how canapés differ from hors d’oeuvres or other finger foods. That’s easy: canapés are a type of hors d’oeuvre. Hors d’oeuvres in French means ‘outside of work’, so hors d’oeuvres in their traditional sense refer to any snack that’s served outside of the main meal. That makes canapés a type of hors d’oeuvres that consists of a base layer and a topping. Sometimes people will use the terms interchangeably, but all you need to know is that they’re both a type of finger food that’s eaten while standing up.
What are the different parts of a canapé?
A canapé will always consist of a base and a topping. There can also be a sauce or a spread and a garnish.
- The base of a canapé is usually made from a small piece of bread or toast, a pastry shell, a blini, or a cracker.
- The spread of a canapé helps add moisture and flavour while also preventing the base from going soggy. It also helps ‘glue’ the toppings onto the bread and prevents them from slipping off. Popular spreads for canapés include butter, mayonnaise, or cream cheese.
- The topping of a canapé is the main attraction. This could be absolutely anything from a fruit or vegetable, a type of seafood, or a cut of meat. Since canapés are often associated with luxury, more premium ingredients tend to be used for toppings. Picture smoked salmon, wagyu beef, prosciutto, lobster, or prawns.
- Some canapés will also have a garnish, because why not? The garnish could be anything from a sprig of herbs, caramelised onions, or caviar.
What makes a successful canapé?
Although all canapés are made from the same foundation of base, spread, topping, and garnish, that doesn’t mean they all taste or look the same. Your frozen supermarket canapés won’t be nearly the same calibre as a chef-made canapé (no offence to supermarkets). This is where being skillful makes all the difference – there are canapés that are good and there are canapés that blow people’s minds. There are two main factors that contribute to a successful canapé.
Balancing colour, flavour, and texture
These three elements are paramount to creating canapés that are memorable and look inviting. Texture is an important one to think about – a successful canapé is one that contrasts several different textures to create an enjoyable eating experience. A canapé shouldn’t be too much of any one texture, for example too soft or too creamy or too crunchy. It should perfectly harmonise various textures for an interesting eating experience.
Having a variety of colours in a canapé makes it more attractive and inviting, especially if it’s presented on a buffet table for people to help themselves. Using colours in the right way can transform a canapé into a work of art. Taste, well of course! A successful canapé has to taste really good!
Ease of eating
One of the most important parts of a canapé is how easy it is to eat. Canapés are designed to be consumed with the hands, while standing up, and usually with a drink in the other hand. So a successful canapé is one that can easily be eaten with one hand and usually in one bite. If it takes more than one bite to eat the canapé, then it needs to not fall apart. A successful canapé doesn’t leave sauce on the hands and isn’t messy to eat. It should be swiftly consumed in one or two bites and that’s the end of that…
What are typical canapé garnish ingredients?
Adding garnish to a canapé can really give it an extra wow factor. They add a decorative touch but also a hint of extra flavour, whether that’s heat or brininess or sweetness. Here are some different garnishes used on canapés:
- Shaved truffles,
- Chopped olives,
- Lemon zest,
- Caramelised onion,
- Chopped herbs,
- Crushed nuts,
- Sliced cherry tomatoes.
What are some different types of canapés?
So, what can you expect when you order canapés? These are some examples of popular canapés to give you an idea of the different types of canapés a chef might make:
- Porcini, shiitake, and cremini mushrooms with Gruyere cheese on a base of polenta topped with minced thyme,
- Caramelised asparagus and shallots with cream cheese on a base of crispy toast topped with toasted walnuts and lemon zest,
- Smoked salmon with horseradish cream cheese on sliced cucumber topped with chopped fresh chives,
- Black olive tapenade and fresh crumbled goat cheese on a crispy base topped with fresh thyme leaves,
- Sliced peach and prosciutto and lemon-shallot mascarpone cream cheese on a sliced baguette topped with fresh chopped basil,
- Fresh cranberries, ginger, coriander, and jalapeños with goat cheese on crunchy toast topped with roasted pumpkin seeds.
Behind-the-scenes look at how chefs design canapés
Now that we know what makes up a canapé, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how chefs design and make them, from concept to creation.
Step 1: Creative brainstorming
The seed for every canapé a chef creates starts with the client or event. The client’s ideas or needs, their budget, the guests, the type of celebration, theme, and venue are all taken into account. Knowing where the canapé will be eaten plants the seed for a chef who will then get busy brainstorming a creative menu that’s indulgent, instagrammable, and bound to impress the guest list.
This brief coming from the client will form the base of a chef’s canapé recipe. They’ll take the initial ideas and merge them with the culinary trickery and techniques they’ve picked up throughout their career. Every chef has a different skill set, is versed in different cuisines, and brings their own set of artistry to the table. So canapés will always reflect the chef.
Food doesn’t just fall onto the plate like this naturally. It takes meticulous design, consideration, and effort.
Step 2: Sourcing fresh, gourmet ingredients
Flavour doesn’t just come from a combination of spices and seasoning. The best flavour comes from within, and most chefs will go straight to the source when shopping for their canapé ingredients. The secret sauce to any mouth-watering dish is the freshness of ingredients used, and most chefs look for produce that has reached peak flavour and maturity.
Farmers’ markets, fish markets, delicatessens, bakeries… it’s funny how shopping for something so small can take hours, or days of attention.
Shopping for canapés isn’t as simple as checking the list and grabbing the number of vegetables needed. It’s a laborious task of inspecting each and every item, smelling it, feeling it, and getting a good sense of ripeness before putting it in the basket. You’d better bet that a chef’s inventive recipe is not going to be wasted on a less-than-incredible vegetable or seafood.
The time chefs spend in markets doesn’t just involve picking ingredients and assessing their quality. There’s a lot of effort that goes into building relationships with store owners. Having a good rapport with the staff at a fish market means the chef will get the freshest and best salmon of the day. If the chef knows the farmer well, they’ll save them the ripest pick of the bunch each time.
Chefs put an enormous amount of work into getting to know their producers and building relationships to ensure the customer ends up with premium ingredients and delicious canapés.
Step 3: Slicing, dicing, and prepping
Canapés are complex. The number of ingredients and the amount of preparation that can go into a single bite-sized piece of art is astounding. That dollop of sauce? It could have taken hours to cook. There’s making the broth for the sauce, chopping the ingredients, boiling it down, thickening it, refrigerating it… and then each canapé may end up with only a few drops. Extremely flavoursome drops, but still.
Every ingredient in the tiny flavour bombs that are premium canapés requires precise chopping, slicing, dicing and prepping. Some ingredients are roasted while others are fried. Some are steamed while others are experimented with and turned into foam. Some require freezing, others require toasting. Some are glazed, others are reduced.
Canapé creation is all about balancing the unique needs and aspects of every delicate ingredient and bringing them together seamlessly. It’s no easy feat. Next time you pop a canapé in your mouth, stop for a moment and appreciate all the effort that has gone into that end product. Relish it.
Step 4: Plating up
The plating up process is the part that people love to watch the most. Why? Because plating up is a true art and an absolute joy to witness.
It’s the final coming-together of all the exquisite ingredients and elements of the canapé. Plating up is all about precision, structure, focus, and meticulous design. This is where a chef can truly showcase their mastery in their craft, presenting their dishes with real aesthetic while also sticking to the easy-to-eat finger food rule of premium canapés.
Thin slices can be wrapped or overlapped to create a pattern. Moulds are used to help sauces, creams, and purees retain texture and shape. Plating up is all about creating composition, a sense of elegance and intrigue, and making premium canapés that are extremely Instagrammable.
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