The best canapes to serve at cocktail-style events
Bye bye arancini balls; hello tempura nori. Chefs around Australia are making the most of the public’s growing appetite for cocktail-style events, creating canaps that really pack a punch.
It’s most certainly a first world problem, but one of biggest challenges for caterers is ensuring their guests can both eat and sip from their Champagne flute with ease.
We’ve all been there – starving at a cocktail event, but you turn down the oversized slider, as delicious as it looks, and then let the Chinese takeaway box of fried rice go past, simply because, well, it’s been a long week and you don’t want to part with your bubbles.
Over the past few years, the events industry in Australia has witnessed a massive shift in interest from the formal three course sit down function, to the more casual and interactive stand up event.
Menus have had to change accordingly; the challenge being squeezing as much intrigue and flavour into just a couple of bites, so guests aren’t forced to choose between their drink or their dinner.
“You want to make sure that there’s nothing dripping down the guest’s face. Guests don’t want it to be too greasy; they want to keep their hands clean,” said Michael Mousseau, executive chef at Sydney’s Four Seasons. “At a stand up event, when people are trying to talk to others and be presentable, they want to be able to eat things with one bite.”
Lobster mini taco, avocado and jalapeno from Four Seasons
Mousseau said providing catering for cocktail-style events is more labour intensive than other formats, but the key is in the preparation.
“Canapes are time consuming, but generally, there’s a lot that can be done in advance as opposed to during the execution, at the time of the event. It’s really about the mise en place – so you get ahead. One chef might be doing three or four canaps, but it might take them a little bit longer because the attention to detail needs to be there. Each one has to be identical.
“You’re putting together a little bite for one person and all up you might be doing 12 different kinds for 500 or 600 people. You want to make sure that each bite counts because the guests might only be having eight to 12 bites. You want them to be memorable,” he said.
Matt Leahy, head chef at Ultimo Catering in Perth agrees that a lot of the work for cocktail style events can be done in advance, adding that today’s chefs have access to a huge range of technologies and techniques that can help them to create canaps that pack a punch in one or two bites.
Ultimo Catering's pancetta bound chicken ballotine, Pink Lady apple gel, micro cilantro
“We have so many techniques on hand now. Fluid jelly is an awesome example. You can get that flavour injection that you want on the dish, without it taking up too much space. If you do an apple fluid jelly, you don’t have to put a chunk of apple on there. Or you could go another way and dehydrate the apple and make an apple dust that’s intense in flavour. We’ve got the ability to make more intricate canaps now,” Leahy said.
To help ensure minimal fuss and maximum taste, Leahy said it’s important for chefs to think outside the square when it comes to what the canap is served in or on. Where possible, make it edible.
“It comes down to creativity. What can do use as the base of these canaps that’s new? We use everything from puff pastry to pumpernickel, to little charcoal cups and rice crackers. Anything to make it easier for the guest and for it to be beautiful, new and fresh.
“For example, I’ve come up with this chargrilled Brussels sprout for winter, that comes with crispy pancetta and a maple fluid gel. So you get this bitterness from the Brussels sprout, and then the maple sweetness, and then we put some popping candy on it as a surprise. It’s different, but it’s an exciting one for winter,” he said.
Over in Canberra, Broadbean Catering’s executive chef, Vanessa Broadfoot, said organisers of cocktail events should keep the number of canaps that are served on things like spoons or skewers to a minimum.
“If a guest is standing there with a skewer in their hand and they don’t know what to do with it, then that’s not good. Keep that in mind if you’re going to serve things with sticks or bones or on spoons … As they’re going out, make sure the staff know they have to go around and clean up after the canaps. But at a cocktail party, only one or two items should be like that. We would try to make sure that there’s nothing left over for the rest of them,” she said.
Popular examples from Ultimo Catering’s menu include a gruyere and caramelised onion tartlet; the classic blini with smoked salmon or gravlax; a black sesame tartlet with whipped feta and pear chutney; a chorizo sausage roll with lime aioli; and crumbed haloumi with a tomato and chilli jam.
For longer cocktail events, weddings, and those running over dinner time, a few more substantial canaps are a good idea. Broadfoot recommends salt and pepper calamari served in a cone, zucchini flowers and little pork belly baos.
A clever way to approach canaps is to look at what’s trending in the broader foodservice market, and try to concentrate the same concept and flavours in a canap, she said
“Anything that’s popular at dinner in a larger size – if you can get that flavour and do it in a canap, and get it to look really great on a plate, then people will love it.
Chicken lollipops from Broadbean Catering
“At the moment, fried chicken is really popular. So we do a little wing drumstick where we pull [the skin] over, marinate it in buttermilk to tenderise it, then coat it in spices and deep fry it until it’s crunchy and golden; so it’s like southern fried chicken. It’s a little chicken lollipop that people can hold. It’s a couple of bites, and it just packs a lot of flavour."
Trends to take note of
The deep fryer has long been the go-to piece of equipment for chefs cooking for crowds, but the tides have turned and diners are now after something a little fresher, said Ultimo Catering’s Matt Leahy.
“There was a lean towards party pies and arancini balls and croquettes and samosas, but they’re just too greasy. There is a place for them, you just have to balance them and be smart with the sauce or the presentation. So we do a lamb kofta (below) and there’s quite a bit of grease in it, but we shape it around a cinnamon quill and then we decorate the platters with capsicum coulis and greens.
“Colour has become a lot more important. For a long time people were deep frying so it was all greys and browns, but I think there are a lot more intelligent, smarter chefs out there with a lot more creativity and a lot more skill.”
Four Seasons’ Michael Mousseau agrees, adding that he’s seeing a growing interest in meat-free canaps.
“They’re becoming more and more popular,” he said. “A couple of good ones we’ve done recently are a little crab and avocado taco, and a pizza fritti with cured tomato, artichoke mousse, shaved parmesan, truffle and basil, so it’s a really flavourful bite. We’ve also done tempura nori with kingfish tartare on top, which is really nice. We add squid ink to the nori so it comes up black and we serve that with a little bit of chilli,” he said.
“We’re just trying to get away from the classic potato, meat and veg, and give people more of an experience with the presentation and the produce; just as we would with one of our restaurants.”