A true Petit Four consists of layers of thinly-sliced dense cake, bound together with a filling and then cut into various shapes and covered with some kind of frosting, glaze or icing. The key in making these prize treats is flexibility and creativity, not to mention the right cake, which must be strong enough to remain solid, firm and yet able to absorb flavorings without overpowering. You won’t find this in any cake mix or commercially produced cakes. It’s something that must be made from scratch.
The next key is a sharp bread or cake knife that can be easily manipulated to create even, thin slices. There are tricks to this, which we’ll discuss later.
The most critical thing is your patience. More than talent, making these delights requires incredible patience and the ability to calm down and not rush. Every time people fail with their Petits Fours they did so due to impatience or an inexcusable need for speed. Plan these ahead and you’ll do fine. Yes, planning is key. Know what you’re going to do; write it out, and take it one step at a time. Every minute you spend will be forever remembered by those who enjoy your work.
You can make cakes with any flavoring you desire, or use plain cake; or you can use something of lovely color. Layering can make for very interesting combinations. Be creative, but sensible. One pro pastry chef found he could make checkerboard patterns no more than 1/8-inch in size (per square), but when he moistened the cake, they fell apart. So, temper your creative juices with a bit of wisdom and common sense. The cake must work well and fit the ultimate goal or the occasion. Deep purple and lime green frostings with red flowers isn’t (for example) a good mix for a wedding celebration, though great for a summer event.
Doubtlessly you’re wondering why you can’t use one of those marvelous store-bought poundcakes seen in other recipes. Well, you can. But, those cakes have ingredients meant to keep the cakes soft and pliable. These work against the purpose of Petits Fours, which should have firm, strong cake to hold glazes, frostings, and fillings. You’ll see when you make a Petit Fours with commercial cake how it falls apart when you lift it up to eat it.
- 3 Cups all-purpose flour
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 Cups sugar
- 1/2 Cup unsweetened butter, softened
- 6 egg whites, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 Cup milk
- Grease and flour 13- x 9-inch baking pan; set aside. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
- Beat sugar and butter in another large bowl at medium speed, scraping the bowl occasionally, until creamy. Add 1 egg white at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture alternately with milk, beating well after each addition just until mixed.
- Pour the batter into prepared pan.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool pan on wire racks 15 minutes. Loosen edge of cake by running knife around inside edge. Carefully remove cake from pan; cool completely. Patience is a virtue and a necessity here. Warm cake is far more likely to break than a completely cool one.
- Trim edges from cake. The cake should be about 1 3/4 inches high.
- Using your bread or cake knife, and two equal height strips of wood, trim the cake completely of crust, leaving only white cake.
- Now, using two strips of 1/4-inch thick wood placed on either side of the cake, cut a bottom slice off the cake. Move the upper portion (thicker piece, to the side and repeat until you have several layers of 1/4-inch thick cake.
Fruit preserve fillings are common, but so are buttercream, marzipan and surprisingly, canned frosting (though we don’t recommend this). We’re partial to the fruit spreads, though you can do some nice things with the buttercream. What you don’t want is anything that is rough, coarse or contains ingredients that cause “bumps” in between your layers. So, skip the seeds, nuts or chunky fruit spreads. The filling should be able to spread easily with a brush or spatula to a very thin layer. Remember, all you’re doing is gluing one layer to another.
To make a Raspberry filling, take a jar of seedless raspberry preserves (not jelly or jam). Add it to a medium saucepan and add two Tablespoons water and heat over medium flame, stirring constantly until the preserves are melted. Do not boil or caramelize or the mixture will have a burnt flavor. Remove from the heat. Add any flavoring, such as Chambord, Godiva liqueur, Grand Marnier or Kirsch. Mix well and let cool. You may make this with peach, apricot, blueberry, strawberry or other preserves.
Brush the cooled filling on top of the bottom layer of the cake made in the recipe above. Carefully slide the next sheet of cake on top. We used wax paper to help with this by sliding the next layer onto the lower while pulling the paper out. The paper never touched the filling. We then put the paper over the next layer and very gently pressed. Remove the paper, spread more filling, then repeat. Do not brush filling on the last (top-most) layer. Trim the edges and you now should have a clean, neat perfect rectangle. Use rulers if necessary to make sure the edges are straight and the cake even in size (only important for square or rectangle shapes). Wrap the cake in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
When done, remove and begin cutting the shapes you desire. The most efficient shapes are squares, triangles or rectangles, yielding absolutely minimal waste. Diamonds, ovals, hearts and other shapes will result in considerable waste. Factor that into your costs and your production. It may be necessary to make several cakes if you need volume. To make shapes, use specialty cutters that are deep enough to cut through the cake with enough over the top to keep a hold on. More cooks mess up shapes by using the wrong cutters.
Once cut, place the pieces onto a baking pan, cover with plastic wrap and freeze until ready to glaze.
Now here’s where the art of Petits Fours comes to play. The most common glaze is a soft or liquid fondant. This is one of the more elegant glazes and most effective for creating art. However, done right, chocolate, white chocolate, or other things can serve as glazes, quite successfully. We’ll focus on the Poured Fondant here, keeping in mind its allure and ability to produce amazing results.
- 7 to 8 Cups powdered sugar
- 3/4 to 1 Cup hot water
- 1 Cup vegetable shortening (crisco)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon almond, orange or clear vanilla extract
- food coloring (optional)
- Melt the shortening in the microwave.
- Add about 5 cups of powdered sugar, and stir to make a paste.
- Carefully add about half of the hot water, and stir until it is almost uniform (you will have a few lumps).
- Put the bowl back into the microwave for another 30 seconds, then add more hot water and sugar until you have a pourable consistency. (Microwave to loosen it up for a few seconds when needed.) Use a whisk to break up all the lumps and get the fondant very smooth. Add the salt and flavoring. If you desire color, remember this mix is white, so it will make pastel colors with minimal coloring and will make intense color with more food coloring added. Before you add coloring, you may want to repeat this and make several batches, for each individual color desired. If you want to tint your fondant for a section of cake, put some of the fondant into a glass Pyrex measuring cup and stir in 1 drop of food coloring. You may have to microwave for a few seconds more often, as the smaller quantity will get thick faster.
- You'll need an offset small spatula (a bent one) a straight spatula and we recommend a plastic "dipping" fork with the two middle tines broken off carefully, leaving no plastic spurs.
- To dip your petit fours, use a dipping fork.
- Use a large spoon to scoop fondant over the square – several times – making sure you coat all sides. Let the excess fondant drain off. (You will get a few crumbs in the fondant – but most will slide right off and will not show up in your final product.) Microwave for 15 seconds every so often to loosen up the fondant if it gets too thick, and whisk often.
- Use a spatula to push or lift the Petit Four off the dipping fork onto a wire rack to set. Let your Petits Fours rest on a rack (before you start, oil the rack with a little bit of vegetable oil to prevent sticking) until the coating has solidified.
- Once your Petits Fours are all coated, and the fondant is set – you can begin to decorate.
If the glazed Petit Four is the equivalent of the artist’s canvas, decorative elements are the bits that make the canvas a masterpiece. From candies to fruits, to decoratively piped decoration, each element adds a distinction to the individual Petit Four, and may tell its story. No major skill is necessary to add a basic decoration, though some mastery and high confidence is needed to make fancy decorations on individual pieces.
What shapes will your Petits Fours take? Square cubes are typical, but so are round, heart shapes, domes, diamonds and ovals. The shapes depend solely on your patience, talent and resources, and of course, compliance with your plan. Ask yourself what these Petit Fours are for? A wedding? Then you’ll want elegant shapes like round, diamonds, ovals or hearts. An anniversary or shower? Bells, domes, round or squares may work. For afternoon tea? Ovals, rounds or squares are good. And of course for holidays, you’ll be creative, making gift boxes for some, and hears for Valentine’s. The possibilities are endless.
Generally, the cake, glaze and filling have little flavor that’s going to make the consumer’s palate jump for joy. However, when we consider that the cake can be rather dry, it’s important to moisten, and in doing so, we get that unique opportunity to flavor the confections. Simple syrups made with flavorings can add whole new dimensions to your Petits Fours. A simple raspberry jam layered vanilla cake can become an amazing treat with a dash of Chambord liqueur in the simple syrup. If you enjoy nuts, try making a pistachio infused syrup with a hint of dark rum.
The key with syrups is to avoid color if possible, unless you desire color.
A simple syrup should consist of 1 Cup sugar to 1 Cup water. Dissolve the sugar in the water in a non-reactive saucepan over medium heat just until the sugar is coming to a boil, and is completely dissolved without stirring. Monitor it, let the sugar boil for two to three minutes making sure no caramelization (browning) takes place. If it does start to brown, remove from the heat immediately and set in a cool place. Once cooled, flavor may be added to the syrup.
When applying syrup to the cake, use a very small brush and just dab the cake. Do not soak it or your Petits Fours will crumble. Your goal is to moisten… just barely. We suggest moistening the middle layers of your Petits Fours only, leaving the top and bottom levels dry. This ensures the consumer’s ability to hold the individual piece, and protects the coating from dissolving or breaking apart.
Petits Fours as Art
Making the perfect Petits Fours is somewhat of a misnomer. Perfection is based on the satisfaction of the consumer, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If it tastes good, looks nice and it is appropriate to the use, then it is art. They don’t have to be precise or perfect in shape, form or design. They have to be perfect in taste.
Presentation is important, whether art is crude or refined. So, consider how your Petits Fours will be offered – on platters, in boxes, set in little paper cups or on ceramic dishes. The delicate morsels can be packaged and sold too, making excellent gifts, or, if you desire, they’re perfect accompaniments for coffee in restaurants. Best of all, they are delightful at parties.
Keeping all this in mind, planning is part of your art. Presentation makes them even more lovely than they are on their own, so be an artist, creative genius, sculptor and painter, with cake, preserves, syrup and fondant. Everyone will love you for it!