Petit Fours

November 27, 2013

I’m so thrilled to bring you another article from lovely kindred spirit and fellow food lover Claire. I’ve known Claire Harrison for well over 12 years and I’m tickled pink that she has agreed to share her wonderful musings and observations on food – how we use it, abuse it and love it as she embarks on an exciting new adventure!

From Dietitian to Chocolatier and Pâtissier: Remember the Petit Four?

Just when you thought you could not endure another mouthful, out they came on a little tray, to accompany your coffee. “No, No, No” you pleaded. “I couldn’t eat another thing”. But you did. They were just too beautiful to leave on the plate.   Well, I ask you. “What ever happened to them?”

Food, like fashion, comes and goes. One day it’s all the rage (hello Macarons!), the next it’s a laughing stock. (Goodbye, brandy snap baskets). Unfortunately the petit four has gone the way of bell bottom trousers – renegaded to the deepest recesses of our food wardrobes.

And what a shame that is! Those little bite size morsels of deliciousness, so painstakingly created and artfully decorated, are a lost treasure to our palates.

And perhaps our waistlines.

If we had stuck with a petit four at the end of a meal, instead of a bowlful of dessert, we would be both sated and slim. Portion control at its loveliest.

The Petit Four means “Little oven or small baked item” in English, and comes from the French ‘petite’ meaning small and ‘four’ meaning ‘oven’ or ‘baked item’. Traditionally there are three main categories of Petit four: Petit four sec, Petit four frais and Petit four glace.

Briefly, the first includes dryer baked delicacies such as shortbreads, tuilles and brandy snaps; the second, petit four frais, includes freshly filled and quickly perishable treats such as tiny fruit tarts, cream filled meringue, and little mousse gateaux; whilst the third, petit four glace, are the marzipan and fondant covered cakes prettily decorated with sugar flowers and filigree.

The petit four was named for the way it was cooked, and not for its presentation. In the 18th century, large brick ovens fuelled by coal were raging furnaces, suitable for baking meats and vegetables. This very hot oven was called the grand four or ‘big oven’. However, once the fires were put out and the ovens began to cool, they became known as the petit four, which was then used to cook small cakes and pastries because they needed a more delicate heat and it enabled the remaining heat of the oven to be used rather than wasted. Thus was born the petit four delicacies.

Traditionally, petit fours are consumed on two occasions:  The first, as part of an afternoon tea complemented by a sweet frozen dessert like sorbet or ice cream and the second, as a finale to a large meal or buffet, accompanied by a glass of dessert beverage, such as liquor, coffee, tea, or dessert wine.

However there is an exception to one popularly held belief about petit fours – and that is that chocolates belong in this group. In fact, they are not classed as petit fours because they are not baked in some way. But these days, we are more likely to serve chocolates rather than traditional petit fours, at the end of a meal.

It seems that in this ever moving feast we call life, there is not enough time to spend on creating the intricate works of art that are petit fours. Perhaps we should start again?

Until next time,

Claire

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