Canapes were one of the first things I made on my own as a kid. They’re fun, quick, and simple, making them perfect for entertaining and for letting the wee ones express their creativity. I remember hovering around the platter as our dinner guests helped themselves, proudly informing them with chest puffed out that “I made the canapes.” Hopefully it came across as more cute than obnoxious.
If you’re not familiar with the word “canape,” it’s really just another way to say appetizer or hors d’œuvre with the distinction that canapes are typically decorative and bite-sized and assembled on crackers or baguette slices. The word comes from the French for “couch” because the toppings sit atop the base as your guest would sit atop your couch.
The best part about making canapes, especially as a kid, is that other than the general base-and-topping construction, there are no rules. Go crazy! Have fun! Dream big! These are magic words to a six-year-old.
There are, however, some general guidelines that I’ve come to appreciate in my more mature years. Combining all of the fruit preserves and topping them with honey is probably a little much for the adult palate. Goat cheese should be spread on a little more moderately than cream cheese. Capers stuffed inside olives look cool, but it will satisfy your weekly sodium dosage in a hot second. Live and learn, right?
Here are some basic tips for constructing great canapes, intended for both young and old:
- Use a sturdy base. There are many tasty places to start when building your canapes. But be sure that you’re using something that will hold up to its toppings and be easy for your guests to grab and to maneuver into their mouths. Water crackers, seeded crispbreads, woven wheat crackers, homemade root chips, round corn chips (like the kind they use for ballpark nachos), and small pieces of toasted French bread are all great options. Stay away from thin, fragile, or flimsy stuff, like untoasted, soft-crust bread, restaurant-style tortilla chips, pita chips, lentil chips, and so on. Be wary of stuff that gets soggy easily—I love making tostadas on Indian papadum, but it goes from crisp to limp way too fast.
- Make the first layer sticky. The best way to prevent your toppings from rolling around or falling off is to coat your base with a layer of something with a little stick—a spread or a dip, like guacamole, hummus, pesto, and refried beans, or a soft cheese all work great. You can’t use anything too loose, or it will drip over the sides and get messy. Remember that strong flavors like goat cheese and bleu cheese should go on lightly and will need something in your flavor profile to cut them a bit.
- Go for visual variety. Cutting your ingredients into various shapes and sizes and using a few different colors makes your end product more visually pleasing. If you use a big square of roasted red pepper on top of your goat cheese layer, add another tiny bit of goat cheese on top, stick some roasted corn kernels into it, and top it off with fresh chopped herbs or a single leaf of oregano. The layering of colors and flavors will look as lovely as it tastes.
- Honor the classics. I’m a big fan of coming up with original, unorthodox, or funky flavor combinations. That said, you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” as they say. Take a hint from tried-and-true classics and use them as inspiration to create something all your own. If you’re using hummus, try adding other Greek flavors like olives, feta, oregano, lemon, or mint. If you’re starting with goat cheese, try adding a swirl of fruit preserve and a thin slice of green apple, then garnishing with fresh arugula leaves. One of my favorite canapes was a simple take on bagels and lox: a round of soft, crusty French bread, a smear of chive cream cheese, a delicately folded piece of smoked salmon, a tiny dot of salmon caviar, and an elegant sprig of dill. The crowd went wild!