7 easy ways to make your appetisers look festive for Christmas
After one frustrating cheeseboard fail, Nadene Hall breaks down seven festive appetisers that are practically foolproof.
Words: Nadene Hall
My most frustrating Christmas fail looked like a simple platter of cheese, grapes, and thyme artfully arranged to look like a Christmas tree when I spotted it on Pinterest. You can see it here and wonder about my creative credentials.
I spent several incredibly frustrating hours trying to match that photo. It looks SO simple but it must take an artist’s eye that I don’t possess.
My Christmas cheese fail made me suspicious of online food ideas, and Ann Reardon says you should be too. She’s an Australian food scientist, pastry chef, and the enthusiastic host of How to Cook That. Her videos on baking, or transforming a cake fail into something stunning, are inspiring, achievable, and most importantly, accurate.
Ann occasionally debunks fake food videos from massively popular YouTube channels such as 5-Minute Crafts and So Yummy. She tests their instructions, which often defy the laws of physics and chemistry.
“To keep people watching, they make it fast and ‘easy’ with apparently no concern if it’s accurate or actually works,” Ann writes on her website. “Falsified DIYs look more impressive and shareable than real how-to videos, which leads to more views, meaning more adverts running against those videos and therefore more money.”
And the money is huge – the 5-Minute Craft channels receive over a billion views a month. If you do try and fail at making something you’ve seen online, Ann says it’s probably not you. This year, I’m having a go at the Christmas cheese platter (see below), but I’ll be happy if all I get is a random placement of cheese, grapes, and crackers in a triangular shape. It’s hard to go wrong with those ingredients.
Here are some Christmas ideas that look great, and are (mostly) pretty easy to make.
1. Cheesy Christmas tree bread
It’s hard to beat hot carbohydrates and gooey cheese. This is pizza dough, rolled out and cut into squares, then wrapped around of chunk of mozzarella. You use an egg wash to turn the dough golden during baking, then sprinkle cheese and finely chopped coriander over the top and grill it for a minute.
Another amazing topping uses ¼ melted butter, ½ cup finely grated parmesan, and 1 tbsp each of finely chopped basil, parsley, and rosemary. Mix, then brush (or pour) over the top.
2. Cucumber Christmas bites
Simple, if you have the right tools. The best way to get those gorgeous, thin cucumber noodles is to use a julienne peeler or a mandolin. You could also use it thinly slide the carrot, then cut it into stars, or stamp them using a star-shaped cookie cutter. The base is a chunk of cheddar cheese, but you could use a softer Swiss one.
To give it a bit more flavour, season the cucumber with salt and pepper, then brush it lightly with mayonnaise before you fashion it into a tree shape.
3. Christmas tree meringues
This is a pretty easy one. If you’re already making meringues, just add green food colouring with the last addition of sugar to the mixing bowl, then use a star nozzle on a piping bag.
Decorate with hundreds and thousands as the meringues are cooling (so they stick). For a cute flourish on top, add a star-shaped sprinkle in gold or silver.
4. Cream cheese Christmas trees
Turn your favourite cheese ball into a cute little tree. These ones are sitting on puff pastry bases, but you could use crackers or a pastry cup. They’re coated in dill, but any finely chopped green herb that matches your cream cheese filling will work. To add some colour, decorate it with pomegranate seeds. Top with a star anise pod.
5. Christmas cupcakes
Looks easy, doesn’t it? This icing effect is mostly clever layering using a notched leaf tip nozzle to pipe the green icing, and I suspect the steady hand of someone experienced at icing cakes.
If that’s not you, another option is to bake some larger cupcakes (big muffin size), then put an ice cream cone on top, upside-down – use a thin layer of white icing to ‘glue’ it to the cupcake. You can then pipe simple little stars onto the cone, and cover with your choice of sprinkles.
Bonus: a few years ago, I experimented with trying to find the moistest cupcake. It turned out to be a simple vanilla recipe – it was pretty close to this – and then bake them until the crumb is holding together, but the top isn’t golden. They look a bit anaemic compared to one that’s been in the oven for 20 minutes or so, but they won me the office cupcake competition.
6. Christmas cheeseboard
My nemesis, the pretty cheeseboard. No baking involved, so it’s simple, right? But as I’ve discovered, creating something from a picture like this can be trickier than you think. Food stylists make it look very easy.
If you’re inspired into making this or something, similar, break it down into little segments so you can get the proportions and shape right.
This dish uses a mix of cheddar, blues, ash-coated chevre, gouda, and a nut-covered cream cheese in the shape of a donut. They’ve used out-of-season pear, but apple would work. Eating a slice between bites is also an excellent way to cleanse your palate so you enjoy the particular flavour of each cheese.
I could only find one place selling cute little ceramic pans with handles (and it was price on application, so not in my budget). Your eye likes the symmetry of an image like this, but when I erased the handles it still looked good so a shallow sauce dish or even a tea saucer should work.
7. Christmas wreath salad
I haven’t made this one, so I’m suspicious that it might be another one that looks simple but takes an arty eye that I don’t have. This is star-shaped beetroot, segments of apple and orange, cheese stars, pomegranate, and chopped brazil nuts lying on a bed of salad greens, with honey-mustard sauce.
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One of the keys to making something like this is the mix of colours they’ve used. NZ platter specialists Amy Sammons and Kelly Austin of Picnic & Platter have some great tips on how to get colour into a platter of food, and how to create ones that look like this.