They may be midgets of the cake world, but petit fours are admired by all for their flavorful, stunning sophistication. It’s no wonder the word “petit” has often been corrupted into “petite” when referring to these little delicacies. But you may wonder: Why the “four?” Is that how many you may safely eat before getting a stomach ache?
The name petit four is actually of French origin, literally translating to “small [or little] oven.” Okay, so the small part makes sense. Where does “oven” come in? Back in the 1700s, the little cakes were baked in brick ovens after all the other baking was done, to make use of the heat as the ovens cooled down. (Such thriftiness is certainly a hallmark of bygone days.) In addition, the low temperature was essential for baking such small items so they didn’t burn. The New York Times first referred to “petits fours” on January 28,1894 (page 17), when printing the menu of Mr. Randolph Guggenheim’s special dinner. (He was a lawyer.)
Here’s an eye-opener: a petit four is NOT necessarily a cake. The expression is liberally used to encompasses any type of miniature confection, be it eclairs, macaroons, ladyfingers, bonbons, or cookies. Still, a square little cake draped in a smooth, glossy icing or glaze and accented with a little decoration is the most commonly held image of a petit four.
Some definitions I’ve found for petit fours (“petits fours” is also a correct plural form) follow:
“A small cake cut from spongecake, etc. in any of various shapes and decorated with icing.”
“A small, square-cut frosted and decorated piece of pound cake or sponge cake.”
“A small fancy biscuit(cookie), cake or item of confectionery.”
“A small frosted tea cake.”
Sense a pattern?
But my favorite is:
“Small French cakes that are traditionally served after dessert.”
Wait – let me get this straight – a sweet iced cake that’s served after dessert? Now that’s my kind of thinking! Well, it’s all in the name of tradition . . .
Speaking of tradition, a traditional petit four would be made of almond sponge cake, or joconde. These days, though, all kinds of flavors and fillings are used. Consider vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, pineapple, lemon, and pumpkin, to name a few.
By now you’re probably licking your lips and yearning to make your own petit fours. Just a few more things you may like to know before you venture into the world of these mini marvels: Petits fours sec (“sec” means “dry” in French) understandably refer to dry items like meringues, pastry, and cookie items; while petit fours glace (French “to freeze”) refer to tiny glazed cakes or pastries.
Petit fours can be made in many different shapes, including squares, rectangles, diamonds, hearts, crescents, or triangles. Consider using cookie cutters to cut the cake shapes. A round shape is very common, and the easiest to glaze and decorate. Chocolate glazes work well, since they dry so nice and smooth.
How to Make Petit Fours:
1. Purchase or bake a pound cake or sponge cake. You want a cake that is not too light and crumbly, but one that will hold up under the slicing and dipping that comes next.
2. Cut the cake into 1″ pieces, or use special cutters. Alternatively, instead of slicing the cake, bake many little cakes in special petit four pans.
3. Prepare a fondant or icing glaze, such as:
Glossy-Finish Fondant Icing
6 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup water
2 T. light corn syrup
1 t. vanilla or almond extract
Combine all ingredients and stir until smooth, in a saucepan or double-boiler, over low heat. This icing can be divided into smaller batches and colored with food coloring.
4. (Before dipping, you may first want to seal in crumbs by base-frosting each cake piece with buttercream icing, a recipe found in any standard cookbook.) Using a fork, or skewer, dip cake pieces into icing, tilting to cover all sides. Set petit fours on a wire cooling rack, under which waxed paper or parchment is laid, to catch the drips. Let set. You may want to place in a refrigerator, as this sets the icing quickly.
5. Carefully place the petit fours in little paper liner, or arrange on a tray. Decorate to your heart’s content! Make each petit four unique, using buttercream and a decorator bag and tip to pipe on designs or little blossoms, buds, insects, animals, or messages. Or place a fresh berry on the top of each one, secured with a dab of frosting.
Finally, enjoy these bite-sized, rich morsels of icing-coated cake-eat more than four! They provide all the pleasure of popping gourmet chocolates into your mouth. So remember, bigger isn’t always better. Petit fours are an exquisitely edible proof that good things come in small packages.