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Petits Fours (and My Love Hate Relationship With Them) Part 1

Petit fours

Everyone loves to eat those tiny little cakes and bite-sized sweets commonly called petit fours.

Petits fours and I have an ongoing love/hate relationship. Let me start with the love side of things. Those little bites of heaven, petits fours, are undoubtedly great for satisfying a sweet tooth.

What is a petit four?

A petit four is any small confection, usually one or two bites worth, commonly served during afternoon tea. These include cookies, tiny cakes, dipped fruits, small pastries, and even small marzipan or fudge-like candies.

Why the name petit four, or plural petits fours? The literal French translation is "little oven," but it likely has nothing to do with the actual size of the oven. In the 1800s, when the oven was a big brick beast filled with coals, the terminology referred to the heat setting. "Big Oven" was the term for when the coals were at their hottest, and "Little Oven" for when the coals were cooling off and at a better temperature to cook thin layers of cake or small pastries without turning them to char. So, bakers referred to "à petit four" (low heat setting) when telling junior bakers when to pop those delicate cakes into the oven.

Petit Four refers to the lower temperature or cooling temperature of an 1800's traditional brick oven.  Ovens actively in flame or in a high temperature coal setting would not be appropriate for baking small pastries.  So bakers referred to petit oven (low heat setting) when telling junior bakers when to pop those delicate cakes into the oven.

Where can one sample traditional petits fours?

The culinary version of a petit four is defined as any small confection. Imagine an afternoon tea setting and an opportunity to sample a variety of small desserts - everything from French Macarons to little tea cakes to financiers and Ladyfingers. Essentially, any of those beautiful small desserts that you'd find in a classical culinary or patisserie recipe book

I've had the opportunity to sample some of the finest petits fours in the world during my travels, but if you're looking for places to add to your bucket list, be sure to include afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, as well as tea time at Sketch in the Soho District in London, United Kingdom. Lastly, if you happen to be in Paris, France, you must stop at Laduree near the Arc De' Triomphe.

 The best petit four experience of my life? That's a tough one. I've been blessed with opportunities for travel my entire life. (My first trip out of the States was to the Russian Federation capitol city of Moscow in 1993 - just before the October Coup, but that's a story for another time.) I've been across China, the Orient, India, and Europe. My taste buds love ALL THE CUISINES!

But, if I had to choose a petit four experience for the bucket list, I'd choose the Author's Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok Thailand.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel is a charming stay, and it is FILLED with a rich history. During my visits, I spent much of my downtime reading on the riverside terrace or relaxing in the semi-private loungers by the pool. But my favorite spaces included the Author's Wing and the Garden Wing. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel hosted numerous famous writers who enjoyed the calm spaces of the hotel - from Leo Tolstoy to Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, and Rudyard Kipling. The list goes on and on. I made a point to enjoy tea at least once per visit inside the Author's Lounge. But somehow, I only came away with this one set of photos. Maybe because I was living the moment, savoring the pastries and petits fours, and enjoying my latte in place of tea, while imagining the conversations a group of literary geniuses might have had in this very spot.

Want better visuals than this amateur phone photographer provided? Yes, I'm sure you do. Visit @mo_bangkok on Instagram and scroll for beauty and history.

Tea Time at the Author's Lounge

 

Sketch in Soho is a quirky and eclectic art-filled 18th-century townhouse turned tea room by day and a dinner and cocktail lounge by night!  It was sooo cool and so fun. When you approach the front door, the building is completely unassuming. . . nothing special. But once inside, you are immediately transported to a wonderland! Surprises are hidden in every nook and cranny, and each room has a different feeling, a different look, a different ambiance. Sketch closes down briefly every few years for a complete redo in style too! So, plan to visit every few years! We started our journey with drinks while waiting for our reservation in the parlour, then tea in the gallery, and I was delighted to visit the washroom, a series of pods at the top of drippy paint stairs. Want more visuals? Some of the best pics can be found on the Secret London site.

Sketch of London for Tea

But wait, Natalie, aren't petit fours just glaze-covered cakes?

I get tickled pink when people ask me this! To glaze, or not to glaze, that is the question!

Yes, the most common petit four down here in the southern states is indeed a glaze-covered cake. But, if you're lucky, you CAN find bakers who are willing and delighted to create a variety of cake-inspired petits fours packed with flavor.

Or, if you're adventurous, I encourage you to branch out and create your own little delightful tray of tasty patisserie-worthy confections! (Start with pastry and confectioner recipe books, filled with mouth-watering inspirational photos, to get you started!)

Let me take you through a few of some of my favorite variations:

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations. One of my favorites is the multi-layer glaze topped baby sister to the entremet. It contains all the goodness - layers of different cakes, layers of different fillings, crumbles, icings, or mousse - all designed to complement each other in one bite. My favorite cooking course was an entremet class in advanced pastries. I absolutely LOVED designing and pairing components that wowed the taste buds.

Entremet style petits fours with layers of nut-based cakes, chocolate fillings, and chocolate glaze

Too much for you? Then the simpler, unglazed layer cake might be your next choice. Without the glaze, this style seems to be less sweet. The only downside is that the cakes need to be stored in an airtight container, or they'll quickly dry out. (And that, my friends, is why we glaze!)

Unglazed layered petits fours in chocolate

 

And that leads me to the belle of the ball here in the South - the glazed cake petit four. These are traditionally about 1 to 1.5-inch cubes, made up of cake, with or without filling and glazed with a sugar or ganache style coating. This is what we usually think of when talking about petits fours here in Arkansas, and this is the style we teach in our classes. They can be delicious and soft and can contain a variety of fillings. They're usually decorated very simply, and the glaze seals the cake, keeping them deliciously soft for days.

White and chocolate glazed cake petits fours are the most common in the southern usa

In my next post, I'll talk more in-depth about making these little gems. . . from the frustrating moments to those a-ha! moments. I'll share my tips and tricks to creating successful cake petits fours, so maybe you can avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered. 

We're in the process of loading a full-length class tutorial to our Patreon Channel for our "Slice of Life" Patrons that takes you through the step-by-step process of filling cake, glazing, and decorating cake petits fours. 

If you're interested in learning how to make those tiny glaze covered cakes, step-by-step, we invite you to join us at https://www.patreon.com/artisincakes. Your support means the world to us and ensures that we can continue building a content library filled with nuggets of info, right at your fingertips.

See you soon!

-Natalie