The great carve-up can wait: Skye Gyngell whips up Christmas canapés to tide you over till the big feast

My guests start arriving around 2pm, says Skye Gyngell – but that's far too early to start the feast. Which is why I prefer to whet their appetites...

Christmas lunch always starts late in our home – it tends to straddle somewhere between a late lunch and early dinner. I love this period – when the light has just fallen; it is the time when candles can be lit and their full glow appreciated, the fire is just getting going and the Christmas baubles are glistening in the fading light of the day; the table has been beautifully laid and there is a sense of anticipation in the air for the feast that lies ahead.

We open presents in the morning, followed by a casual brunch at around midday. Family and guests arrive around 2pm, but eating at this time would be unthinkable. So it is nice to have a few little things to eat in anticipation of that feast yet to come. Here are a few fairly simple recipes that can be prepared to some extent in advance.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com

Toasted Taleggio and sage sandwiches

Serve these straight from the pan while the cheese is still melting and piping-hot. Sometimes I lay one or two anchovies on top of the cheese along with the sage to give a saltiness and depth.

Makes 6 little sandwiches

2 slices of sourdough bread, each one-eighth-of-an-inch thick
2 tbsp olive oil
2 slices of Taleggio, eighth-of-an-inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
8 sage leaves
4 anchovies, chopped

Place a medium-sized, non-stick pan over a medium heat. Lay the bread on a board and brush each piece with a little olive oil. Place the rest of the oil into the pan. Lay the Taleggio slices on the bread and scatter the sage on top. Add the anchovies, if using. Season well with salt and pepper, and place another slice of bread on top. Press down firmly using your hands. Turn down the heat to low and lay the sandwiches in the warm pan. Cook for a minute or two then turn and cook the other side. The bread should be golden-brown and the cheese melting and oozing from the sides.

Bite-sized crab cakes

We often put crab cakes on the menu at Petersham – so often, in fact, that we have been known to say in the kitchen that we might as well just run a crab shack, for they are without doubt the most popular dish on the menu. These bite-sized beauties are easy to make and not too much trouble. It is, however, important to use the best-quality white crab meat available.

Makes about 18

250g/8oz crab meat
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
A squeeze or 2 of lemon juice
100ml/31/2 fl oz mayonnaise
250g/8oz fresh white breadcrumbs
A good pinch of sea salt
150ml/5fl oz clean corn oil

Place the crab meat into a bowl, add the chilli and fork through to distribute evenly. Now add the lemon juice and repeat. Finally, add the mayonnaise and stir very well to combine. Form the mixture into 18 little balls and place on a tray. Chill for 30 minutes to allow the mixture to firm up slightly. Spread the breadcrumbs evenly on a board and roll the crab cakes in them to coat thoroughly and evenly. Return to the fridge until you're ready to cook them.

Just before eating, pour the oil into a generous-sized saucepan and place over a medium heat. Allow to warm – the ideal temperature in which to deep-fry is 160C-170C/325F-340F; you can test if the oil is ready by dropping a little bread into the oil – if it sizzles and browns, the oil is ready to use. Now drop in the crab cakes and cook for three to four minutes – turn halfway through the cooking to ensure they are evenly brown all over. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Serve while still piping-hot, though they will retain their heat for some time.

Crostini di fegato

Particularly Tuscan, these little crostini are rich yet delicate. Serve while the chicken livers are still warm, as they are not nearly as nice when served at room temperature.

Makes 10

500g/1lb chicken livers
150g/5oz unsalted butter
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 fresh marjoram leaves, finely chopped
200ml/7fl oz chianti classico
1 tbsp capers, finely chopped
75ml/3fl oz aged balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and black pepper
1 ciabatta loaf, cut on the diagonal into 2cm slices

Using a sharp knife, cut away any membranes from the livers. Roughly chop. Heat the butter in a pan until just foaming, then add the livers. Cook for three minutes or until the livers are nicely brown. Add the garlic, marjoram and wine and cook until the wine has evaporated. Remove from the stove and add the capers and balsamic vinegar. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. While the livers are cooking, toast the bread on one side – this will allow the bread to have bite while still absorbing the juices from the livers. Serve.

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