Hors d' oeuvres are small, bite-sized morsels that are either served before the start of a meal or instead of a meal. Sometimes also referred to as canapés, they can be served banquet style and laid out on platters for guests to help themselves or they can be passed around to guests on trays by food servers. Hors d'oeuvres must be very flavorful and perfectly seasoned because the balance and blend of all of the components must be clearly projected in just a bite or two of food.
Creating and designing an hors d'oeuvre or canapé menu requires a good deal of thought and planning. Not only must an hors d'oeuvre be small enough to be held in the hand and eaten, but it must also be self contained enough that it doesn't crumble apart when bitten into, flavorful enough to be satisfying in such small quantities, and visually appealing enough that the guest wants to eat it. When creating a canapé menu, variety is the factor that should be most strongly considered. It is best to offer a good assortment of ingredients such as meat, fish, vegetables, and cheese as well as an array of edible bases such as bread, pancakes, vegetables, fruit, and pastry shells. Sometimes, instead of sitting on a base, an hors d'oeuvre is threaded on a skewer or served in tiny dishes or glasses.
Other factors to consider when composing the menu relate to preparation and presentation. Even the most basic cocktail party requires 3 or 4 different canapés if one is to satisfy the guests and keep them from getting bored with their choices. If each one requires a great deal of time to prepare, for example making 100 little pancakes, then this must be factored into the overall menu. Designing a menu with items that require many hours of preparation also requires cooking for days in advance and can be a risk in terms of the freshness of ingredients. An important factor to consider is the availability of ample storage space. A better choice would be to select a couple of canapés that are perhaps more labor intensive, such as tartlets or pancakes, and then a couple that are less so, such as a mousse piped onto a cracker or stuffed endive spears.
Presentation is another major consideration, particularly in terms of how much work is required to construct and finish the hors d'oeuvre before they are ready to be served. Those that require a good deal of detail and precision generally take longer to complete and therefore take longer to get out to the guests. Extensive focus on a single item also takes away from moving quickly onto other items and can make the flow of food out of the kitchen extremely slow, something that is never well received.
A well thought out menu should have a few items that can be pre-assembled, and will hold up well, and then only one or two that require a multi-step process for completion. For example, if you are putting together a platter of canapés that each require a mere 2 minutes to assemble, it takes 20 minutes to send out just 10 pieces. Because they are so small, they are rapidly consumed in a matter of seconds and hungry guests will be anxiously awaiting their next piece. It would not be possible to assemble hors d'oeuvres such as these fast enough to keep up with the pace of consumption (unless there were a plethora of chefs in the kitchen, which is typically not the case). It is therefore important to balance labor intensive items with those that can go out quickly and keep the guests appeased.
Creating new ideas and recipes is often the most fun part of the menu process. Many chefs look beyond bite-sized foods to classics and traditional foods to get inspiration for variations that they think will be appealing in a smaller size. A popular example of this is the grilled cheese sandwich. Basic and simple at best in its original form, when sized down for an hors d'oeuvre it can be made using interesting breads and unusual cheeses, zipped up with a drizzle of truffle oil, or even accompanied by a demitasse of creamy tomato soup. Suddenly, something considered completely ordinary is transformed into something fun, creative, and new. This particular hors d'oeuvre also falls into the category of those that can be prepared ahead of time and require very little time and effort to serve. The sandwiches can be toasted, cut, and placed on trays to be quickly reheated before they are served. The soup can be made and then held warm in a thermos or coffee pot. The serving process would then be as simple as reheating the sandwiches, placing them on a platter and pouring the soup into the tiny sized espresso cups just before serving. Guests will be delighted by something so familiar that flaunts new flavors, the originality of the transformation of the dish, and even the nostalgia of the soup and sandwich combination.
Visual appeal is one last component to consider when designing an hors d'oeuvre menu. Each hors d'oeuvre should be appealing to the eye as well as the palate. A good balance of color, shape, and dimension is as vital to a canapé as a good balance of flavor. It is therefore important to thoroughly think through the appearance of each item to make sure that there is enough diversity. Making a color sketch of each canapé as it is envisioned allows the chef to have a clear idea of how they will look and is also quite useful when trying to explain the hors d'oeuvres to those who are preparing them. Simple garnishes such as the leaf of an herb or a crushed pink peppercorn can be the perfect finishing touch that elevates the appearance of the hors d'oeuvre to a new level and making it appear complete and balanced.