THIS week, we have an eye towards the upcoming festive season, which is approaching like a stealth bomber, with similar terrifying speed and accuracy.

Terrifying, that is, if we’re not prepared for it. The key to a successful holiday season, with all its meals, drinks parties and extra mouths to feed, is, as we chefs know, all in the mise-en-place. The hours put in early in the day pay off during service.

Sauces are made and chilled, vegetables trimmed and blanched, meat butchered, portioned and wrapped. It’s not just in pro kitchens that this should happen – home cooks should get in on the act too.

I’ve already made my Christmas day turkey gravy, by roasting a cheaper leg and making stock from the bones. The meat made a nice fricassee for supper!

I’ve also already made my ice-creams, the Christmas pudding and various pastry items, all ready for use. The less we have to do on the wallop, the smoother it all goes, and we can enjoy ourselves a little bit more.

So we must get well prepared for the forthcoming parties, dinners, lunches and unexpected drop-ins.

Today it’s all about the very start of the meal. A good overture sets the tone for the rest of the meal, and these days it’s all about canapés and amuse-bouches.

Twenty years ago no-one would have had a clue what an amuse-bouche was, but most of us who like our food are now fully au-fait with the fancy little pre-dinner nibbles that, literally, ‘entertain the mouth’.

Canapés are getting ever-fancier – no longer are we happy with just a bowl of peanuts or some crudités, though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of those.

These days, many of the TV adverts for the supermarkets focus on the super-nibbles, be it tartlets, or skewers of interesting things, or miniaturised versions of ‘proper’ food like chicken Kievs and burgers.

It’s a great way of starting a meal, getting our appetites going, and piquing the interest.

So, riding that wave of popularity for once, I thought I’d give you a couple of recipes for some rather fancy nibbles that can be prepared a day or so in advance, and which will impress your guests no end.

They’re firmly rooted in the classic repertoire, but I still think they are some of the best little amuse-bouches to offer to guests.

Full of flavour, easy to eat, and a doddle to prepare. It doesn’t get much better. Plus, you can do the hard work days ahead, and finish up on the day in minutes, even with a glass of bubbly in the other hand.

First up, cheese palmiers – wonderful curls of puff pastry stuffed with tasty blue cheese and toasted walnuts.

Cheese and pastry go back years, and form many of the traditional pre-dinner appetisers, from the good old cheese straw to the choux pastry magnificence of the classic gougère.

The palmier makes good use of puff pastry offcuts, and you can fill them with pretty much whatever you want. Brie chunks and dried cranberries? Fine. Stilton and celery? Go for it.

Even mousetrap cheddar rolled up with a lick of Branston makes a terrific palmier. Have fun inventing your favourite combination.

Next up, the classic Spanish tapa of datiles con bacon, big juicy Medjool dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in streaky rashers.

I find these almost impossible to eat just one of. They are insanely moreish, a superb bland of sweet and salty, with the crunch of almond adding texture to the chewy date.

Finally, an alternative to the classic Angel on Horseback, traditionally made with oysters, but acceptable with the more universal king scallop.

Scallops are just about perfect at this time of year; they are fat, firm and translucent, and have always had a very special affinity with bacon.

The salty fattiness contrasts well with the iodine-tinged fresh clean fish flavour, and the amazing texture of the king scallop, which is almost like fine fillet steak, is brilliant when combined with the crispness of streaky bacon, either unsmoked or smoked, adding a further layer of magical flavour. Peckish? Aprons on!

For the palmiers:

1 x 375g roll of ready puff pastry

100g Dolcelatte cheese

100g walnuts, chopped

1 egg, beaten

For the dates:

12 Medjool Dates

12 rashers streaky dry-cured bacon

24 large fresh almonds

A little olive oil

For the angels:

12 large king scallops

12 rashers smoked streaky dry-cured bacon

Salted butter

A little olive oil

Wooden skewers or rosemary twigs


The palmiers first; make sure the pastry is at room temperature, to avoid it cracking, then unroll it and chill it flat for half an hour.

Beat the dolcelatte cheese in a bowl until soft and creamy, then carefully spread it out over the pastry, getting right to the edges.

Sprinkle over the chopped walnuts evenly. Now, roll up the pastry from both ends, meeting in the middle with two equal-sized cylinders.

Push these together lightly and roll up in clingfilm. Chill until needed.

To bake them, cut the pastry into centimetre-thick slices, and place these on a baking sheet, leaving a little room for expansion.

Brush each palmier with beaten egg. Heat the oven to 200ºC / Gas 6 and bake for 10-15 minutes until puffed, golden and crunchy. Serve warm.

For the dates, take the rashers of bacon, and, using the back of a heavy knife blade, gently stretch the bacon out on a chopping board.

This helps the bacon rashers not to unfurl whilst cooking. Using the point of a sharp knife, tease the long seed out of each Medjool date, and push two almonds into the heart of the fruit.

Roll each date in a rasher of bacon, and refrigerate until required. To cook, heat the oven to 220ºC / Gas 7. Place the dates on a suitable baking tray, seam-side down, drizzle with olive oil and bake until golden and sizzling. These also make the most amazing sandwich. Finally, for the scallops, repeat the bacon-stretching process.

Trim the corals and muscle away from the scallop meats, rinse gently in cold water and pat dry. Wrap in the bacon rashers and secure with a skewer.

To cook, gently heat a knob of butter with a little olive oil in a wide pan, and fry the scallops for a few minutes, basting with the foamy hot butter, until the bacon is golden and cooked, and the scallops just seared.

My preferred drink with such nibbles is always a good glass of sherry.

I adore sherry, whether it’s the dry, light aperitif wines, or the rich Pedro Ximenez-based dessert wines, full of almost overwhelming raisin-y flavours. Here, I’d choose a bone-dry Fino, with its crisp, yeastiness, a Manzanilla (very similar) or perhaps a darker Oloroso with its deeper, scented tones. And it always seems to me to be a very Christmassy tipple.

Whatever you choose, enjoy these rather special amuse-bouches and have a great holiday.