Monday, December 27, 2010

Mini Pastry Appetizers with Cream Cheese and Red Pepper Tapenade

Sometimes simple is best.

A few clean flavors in a single bite can be impressive in its restraint. That's what this recipe is all about. It's easy enough to make on the spur of the moment, and elegant enough for parties.

And it's endlessly customizable.

Even better, the same concept works just as well for dessert flavors as for appetizers.

While you'll get extra points for presentation, these are quick to assemble if you have all the ingredients on hand.

The most difficult part of this recipe is the pastry shell, and they're not crazy difficult.

You can make your pastry shells from the scraps left from pie making - just press the pieces into the wells of a mini-muffin pan and bake until golden brown. Use them within a few days, or freeze for long-term storage.

Or, if you don't have pie crust scraps, you can buy phyllo (sometimes spelled fillo) or puff pastry sheets to make your own shells. Or buy ready-made shells and keep them on hand for times when you need an emergency nibble.

The red pepper tapenade I used wasn't spicy at all - just a blend of red bell peppers and mild spices. Make your own, or buy it already prepared.

The skin of some cucumbers can be bitter, so taste the first slice to test. Peel the cucumbers if the peels are bitter. No cucumber? Slices of zucchini would be a great substitute.

Classy Little Nibbles

15 prepared mini pastry shells
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
Milk, cream, or yogurt, as needed
Red pepper tapenade

In a small bowl, mix the cream cheese with enough milk, cream, or yogurt to make a smooth paste - but still able to hold its shape. Put a small dollop of the cream cheese mixture into the pastry shells.

Slice the cucumbers into rounds, and slice each round in half. If the pieces look too big for a garnish for your pastry shells, slice them into quarters or whatever size makes sense.

Top the cream cheese with a tiny bit of the tapenade. It should be an accent, not a layer. Insert a piece of the cucumber as a garnish.


Instead of plain cream cheese, you can add any flavors you like. If you aren't comfortable adding your own herbs and seasonings, there are plenty of mixes for making flavored cheeseballs that you could use - either savory or sweet.

The savory accent layer could be any tapenade you like - olive or artichoke tapenade would work well. If you like spicy flavors, a salsa would amp up the flavor nicely. Or use any thick chutney, pesto or relish that you like.

For a play on a classic recipe, top your cheese layer with a bit of cocktail sauce and add a small peeled shrimp on top.

No cucumber for the garnish? Use a parsley or cilantro leaf; a slice of celery, radish or carrot; a sliver of red, green, yellow or orange bell pepper, or even a quartered cherry tomato. A small spear of cheese or slice of olive would be just as good. If none of those are at hand, a sprinkle of paprika, coarse black pepper, or flaky salt would add a finishing touch.

For a cheesecake-like dessert bite, top your cream cheese layer with lemon curd or a thick jam. Maine blueberry jam would be particularly nice, with a whole berry on each. If you want to garnish it, a sprinkle of crushed graham cracker or cookie crumbs would add some crunch. Or, depending on your flavors, use chocolate shavings, colored sugars or sprinkles, grated nutmeg, a shake of cinnamon, or a sliver of candied ginger or lemon peel. Or how about a tiny dollop of whipped cream?

The point of these little bites is to keep them simple - a rich layer of creamy cheese, a flavorful contrast, and a garnish - and that's all you need.