When it is party time roll out the canapés

CHRISTMAS is always a time for indulgence, with temptation served up on silver platters as we work our way through parties and family gatherings over the holidays.

Long gone are the days where a dollop of mayonnaise would turn a prawn into a party centre piece and as the variety of foodstuffs available in the supermarkets has exploded, so have our tastes and expectations.

Canaps and party catering can really help to make a party stand out from the crowd but buying mass produced products can not only become very expensive, your duck rolls with plum sauce will look and taste the same as everyone else's – not so much the "wow" factor as the "not this again" factor.

Cooking party food at home doesn't have to be hard work or strain the budget.

To help you take the plunge, here are some stunning, yet simple canap ideas and tips from experts at the award-winning Cooking School in Halifax that will help get any Christmas celebration off to a sparkling start.

Don't overstretch yourself. Stick to making four or five classic canaps rather than a big variety which can take extra time and effort you probably won't have to spare.

Enlist the help of others; divide up the tasks such as mixing or shaping the Tiny King Crab Cakes or slicing the Brie. A little help will go a long way.

Choose a range of flavours, salmon and cream cheese are festive favourites, as are Brie and cranberry combinations. Don't be too ambitious and let your skills grow with confidence over time.

Prepare one or two extras for you to try as you go along, tasting will help to ensure the overall flavours balance and work well together.

Buy and prepare ingredients in advance, canned crab meat is convenient as well as inexpensive. For a real wow factor it's worth pushing the boat out and buying one luxury ingredient such as quails' eggs.

Allow time for last minute assembly if you want to avoid soggy offerings.

Choose canaps that are easy to make and easy to eat – you want your guests to enjoy them without fearing they will fall apart and ruin the carpets.

Napkins at the ready are essential – no one wants messy fingers or furnishings.

Remember – small is not just beautiful, it's essential – a canap is one mouthful only, not a meal in itself.

Smile and enjoy your guests' compliments – once the trays are out the hard work is over but delegate washing up to someone else.

Tiny crab cakes

Makes 10-12

1 medium potato – cooked, mashed and cooled, 1 egg – beaten, 2 tblsps chopped parsley, 1 tsp French mustard,1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 170g can of crab meat – drained and flaked, 75g fresh breadcrumbs, seasoning, flour for dusting.

Heat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. In a mixing bowl, combine the mashed potato, egg, parsley, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and mix well. Gently stir in the crab meat and the breadcrumbs. Divide the mixture into small, even portions. Using flour for dusting, form into balls and flatten slightly into pattie shapes. Place on a greased baking tray. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes until piping hot and golden brown.

Chef's tip: If these are made slightly larger they can also be served as a starter, or divide the mixture into four large cakes to serve as a light lunch.

Small bruschetta

Serves 12

1 small thin French stick (baton), 4 tbls olive oil, tspn finely chopped fresh rosemary, garlic clove – crushed.

Cut 12 x 1cm thick slices from the French stick. Put the olive oil, garlic and chopped rosemary into a small bowl Coat each slice of bread in the oil mixture so they are evenly coated.

Place on a baking tray and cook for 10 minutes 190C/Gas 5. Place on a wire rack to cool.

Chef's tip: For a plainer bruschetta omit the garlic and rosemary.

Cranberry and Brie bruschetta

Makes 12

2 small bruschetta – see separate recipe, 3 tablespoons cranberry sauce, 100g Brie

Make 12 small bruschetta using the small bruschetta recipe. When the bruschetta are cold put teaspoon of the cranberry sauce on the centre of the bruschetta.

Cut 12 small triangles of Brie and place a triangle of Brie on top of the cranberry sauce.

Chef's tip: The bruschetta can be made the day before if needed and then kept in an airtight tin. The Brie triangles can also be cut beforehand if necessary.

Smoked salmon with cream cheese and chives

Makes 12

12 small bruschetta – see separate recipe, 200g full-fat cream cheese, 1 tblsp finely chopped chives, squeeze of lemon juice, 120g sliced smoked salmon, black pepper – to taste.

Make 12 small bruschetta using the small bruschetta recipe. Place the cheese in a bowl and, using a wooden spoon, soften the cream cheese slightly. Fold the chives, lemon juice and a twist of black pepper into the softened cream cheese. Place a large rectangle of clingfilm on a chopping board.

Arrange the smoked salmon on top of the clingfilm, creating a smaller rectangle. Pipe the cream cheese mixture down the middle of the smoked salmon.

Using the clingfilm to help, tightly wrap the salmon around the cream cheese. Twist the ends of the clingfilm to hold the salmon in place.

Freeze for 45 minutes before serving. Slice into 3mm slices and serve on bruschetta.

Chef's tip: This recipe can be made beforehand, refrigerated overnight and then put into the freezer for 45 minutes before serving.

Poached quail eggs

Serves 4

12 quail eggs, 750ml water, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Very carefully snip the shell of each quail egg and break all the eggs onto one plate.

Over a high heat, bring the water to the boil. Add the white wine vinegar and whisk in a clockwise motion.

Remove the whisk and gently slip all the eggs into the boiling water. Reduce the heat to a simmer.

Allow the quail eggs to poach for 2 to 3 minutes. With a perforated spoon remove them one by one and drain. Serve.

Chef's tip: If serving cold, plunge the eggs into ice cold water to cool then drain on kitchen paper.

For a starter or canaps, serve in pastry cases glazed with Sabayon sauce.

The Cooking School at Dean Clough, Halifax. www.thecookingschool.co.uk Tel: 01422 383192