In a particularly slapstick production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope I went to see several years ago, some of the sillier moments involved a sharp-tongued servant who, despite good intentions, repeatedly had his tray of canapés inadvertently slapped from his hands. The canapés themselves were pastel little buns and discs made of foam—as unserious and cutesy as the comedic scene required. It occurs to me now, though, that, just as a prop sword or crystal ball must be immediately familiar for the sake of narrative clarity, so too were these faux morsels a popular conception of the canapé. I’m mildly offended; I love canapés.
Strictly speaking, canapés are a class of hors d’oeuvres involving little rounds of bread with some single or series of toppings. Classically, the bread is punched out from fresh slices with a ring mould, allowed to become slightly stale, brushed with clarified butter, gently toasted, anointed with some sauce which acts as an adhesive for whatever main topping is desired, garnished, and served on individual doilies on a vast silver platter. They can be complicated, affected, luxurious and delicious. But do you know what else is a canapé? Bruschetta. So is Spam on a cracker.
My canapés rarely involve much more than bread, a topping and a garnish I can live without toasting the bread if it is dense and sturdy enough. Those long, thin and precisely sliced rye loaves sometimes found at German butchers and specialty stores make an ideal base. Lightly toasted (or stale) baguette rounds work well too. I’ve always found clarified butter a waste of perfectly good milk solids; instead I use salted English country butter; when softened it is an effective adhesive and I haven’t yet encountered a sauce with better flavor. If the desire to doctor your butter is overwhelming, fold in chopped herbs, some minced shallot and lemon zest.
The topping, a seemingly simple aspect to the architecture of the canapé, is often where the assembly goes pear-shaped. I avoid complicated compounds, favoring instead the single protein sliver or hunk. In practice this means a fanned-out shrimp rather than a scallop and mayonnaise concoction; a ribbon of parma ham rather than a prosciutto, fig and walnut medley; a room temperature piece of cheese rather than ricotta studded with pistachios, dill and black pepper. Ultimately, it is just too difficult to improve upon the already well-made, and most efforts, while genuine, obscure rather than enhance. Ask yourself: do you really feel you can improve upon caviar?
Garnishes are vital, providing contrast in flavor, texture and color. Thinly sliced pickled gherkin is ideal. Pickled anything works though. Cooked beet is terrific with a bloomed rind cheese. Seafood often requires little more than a few drops of lemon juice and a slice of tomato. Shavings of fresh truffle are probably the best luxury garnish. Herbs, particularly pungent ones like tarragon and basil, are good candidates; sprigs of rosemary and thyme, while handsome, are inconvenient for the guest.
Convenience is important for canapés. They are one-handed, two-bite morsels, and any design or element that challenges that simple dynamic is a poor choice. Towering arrangements, inedible garnishes, overwrought mixtures likely to let loose down a foulard—these are the results of the cook’s cleverness being put before the guest’s enjoyment. My wife recently reminded me of a man we silently observed at a wedding last summer. It seemed he could unhinge his jaw like a python, swallowing the preposterously tall canapés with ease. Everyone else just avoided them. The best canapés are approachable, familiar, and delicious, even from across a room. But if they look like stage props, something has likely gone wrong.