September 9th, 2013

Three Light Bites for a Tea

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White Cheddar Gougeres stuffed with Herbed Chicken Salad

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Open Face Cucumber-Boursin and Tomato-Bacon-Basil Aioli Finger Sandwiches

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Plum Spiced Shortbread Bars

A chunk of my adult life was spent as a caterer, and from time to time I can be coaxed to put that catering hat back on. My friend Gigi is a milliner and hatter; her amazing HATWRKS store here in Nashville offers not only an extensive selection of hats for men and women from the country’s best known hatters, but stunning custom hats that are Gigi’s own design and creation. She had an in-store event recently and asked me to prepare a few light bites and tea.

While working on it, I realized that it would be a good opportunity to share some catering tips: a few tricks of the trade that will ensure success with relative ease.

When planning to make appetizers for a party, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Size
I’ve talked about this here, but you want your guest to be able to eat the appetizer in one (or two) tidy bites, without fear of shattering crumbs allover the floor, or dripping sauce down her blouse.
2. Quantity
Hors d’oeuvres means “outside the main work.” They are designed to spark appetite, but not sate. Remember that they are the prelude to something else. As such, here’s a good rule of thumb: You’ll want to offer 2-3 different appetizers, and figure on 2-3 pieces per person of each.
3. Variety
I consider the group when designing a menu and strive to offer:
Mostly savory, with something sweet. Mostly vegetarian with something meaty. I like to use seasonal produce, and have appealing colors.
4. Intriguing Element
Often what separates a mediocre hors d’oeuvres from a terrific one can be found in one defining element of the recipe. I look for that one special aspect that truly elevates—has that “wow” factor. I like for it also to possess versatility. The economy of excellence, so to speak. For instance, if a cranberry-pear chutney is astonishing in one recipe, it likely can lend the same pizzazz to others.

The three light bites highlighted in this post satisfy my criteria. For your pleasure, I’ve posted the recipes for each one’s defining element to make your own.

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The recipe for gougeres, French-styled cheese puffs, is a great one to have in your catering repertoire. Originally made with Gruyere cheese and a pinch of nutmeg, they can take on other cheeses and herbs or spices with aplomb. (Check out these, made with chevre and chives.)

The white cheddar gougeres make delectable bites on their own. But you can fill them with anything you like–your favorite chicken salad recipe, or smoked salmon, or deviled ham, or roasted red pepper mousse…you get the idea. People always delight in eating them.

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WHITE CHEDDAR GOUGERES
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons ) butter, cut into pieces
2 pinches salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
6 eggs
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Line baking sheets with parchment.

Place the water, milk, butter, and salt into a medium saucepan set on medium high heat. Stir and bring to a simmer, melting the butter. Pour in the flour and stir rapidly, cooking the mixture into a mass. When the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan, remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for a minute or two.

Using a wooden spoon, beat in the eggs, one at a time—beating each egg so that it is well incorporated into the flour before adding the next one. You want to work quickly so that the eggs will not cook or curdle in the mixture. This will give you a real upper arm workout–well worth it! The mass will become smooth, golden in color.

Fold in the shredded cheese.

Place gourgere mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe little (3/4-1 inch) mounds in rows on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Check on the pans at the halfway mark, and rotate them in the oven.
When the gougeres are browned and have a hollow crisp to them, remove the pans from the oven and let the gougeres cool on a wire rack.
Makes 5 dozen gougeres.

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Boursin. We’ve all seen the small packages of this soft, airy French cheese at the market. But, did you know that It is very easy to make your own? It might be more delicious. It certainly is fresher, and more cost effective.

Spread onto petite rounds of sunflower seed bread, this herbed butter-cream cheese blend is what makes the open-face cucumber sandwich exceptional. You’ll also enjoy the boursin paired with roast beef, or slathered onto tortillas lined with shredded vegetables, rolled and sliced into pretty mosaics, or simply garnished in a bowl, as a smear for bagels, flatbreads, or crackers. Salut!

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HOMEMADE BOURSIN
8 ounces cream cheese, softened, cut into pieces
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened, cut into pieces
juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

In a medium bowl, cream the softened cream cheese and butter together with wooden spoon. Stir in the lemon juice, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. Blend well. Cover and refrigerate to allow the flavors to develop and meld. Let the boursin stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that it will be easily spreadable.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

For the Cucumber-Boursin Finger Sandwiches
1 loaf sliced sunflower or whole grain wheat bread
1 recipe boursin
2 medium-sized cucumbers, cut into 1/4 inch thick coins
black pepper
a few sprigs of fresh dill

Using a biscuit cutter, or rim of a juice glass, cut the bread slices into rounds.
Liberally spread the boursin over the rounds and arrange onto a platter.
Place cucumber coin onto each round. Sprinkle with a little coarse-ground black pepper.
Garnish each round with fresh dill.
Serve.
Makes over 4 dozen

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Finally, the spiced shortbread crust , with its nuance of cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, is crisp and buttery…and couldn’t be simpler to make. It makes a wonderful foundation and topping, sandwiching either your choice of preserves or fresh fruit. It cuts beautifully into bars, squares, or triangles! The recipe, adapted from The Cilantropist, was originally made with sliced fresh plums. But, it was the perfect vehicle for my plum preserves (I still have many jars from last year’s bounty.)

I think that you could make the recipe and highlight other stone fruits–peaches, apricots–or layer it with fig preserves or applesauce.

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PLUM SPICED SHORTBREAD BARS (adapted from The Cilantropist)
3/4 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
1 egg
12-16 ounces plum preserves (you may use fresh plums–about 8, pitted and sliced, instead)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with butter or pan spray.

Place both sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, spices, and chilled butter pieces into a food processor fitted with the pastry blade. Pulse quickly, processing the butter into the flour mixture. Add the egg and pulse until it is incorporated. The mixture will be crumbly.

Place 3/4 of the mixture into the bottom of the baking pan, evenly distributed. Press firmly.
Spread the plum preserves over the shortbread crust layer.
Cover the preserves with the remaining shortbread mixture.

Place the pan in the oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes. The top will become browned and the preserves will be bubbly. It will also feel set.
Cool completely on a wire rack. You can cover and refrigerate the bars overnight before cutting them into squares, if you prefer.

Makes approximately 3 dozen small bars.

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Heading into the fall, with holidays soon to follow, you might like to check out Cooking Light’s creative light bites here for other recipes and inspiration. They suggest an appetizer swap party–a variation on the cookie-swap theme, which appeals more to me that all those sweets! It sounds like a fun way to share good ideas and savory bites. Wild mushroom-chevre cups, apricot-blue cheese-walnut in puff pastry….yum.

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Posted in Appetizers/Hors D'oeuvres, Recipes | 25 Comments »