Tiny Pastries: The Petit Four Story

A traditional afternoon tea includes a wide array of small confectionery morsels that can be consumed in one or two bites. The traditional French name given to these types of pastries is petit four. The name literally means “small oven” and comes from the way in which the tiny treats were traditionally cooked. Once a staple of the tea parties of the ruling class in 19th century Europe, petits fours are now coming back into popularity as elegant additions to dinner parties and Sunday brunches. Traditional petits fours are divided into four categories: sec, glaces, frais and deguises. The wide range of options that pastry chefs have when it comes to petit fours makes them a great option for those who understand the fundamentals of baking.

History of the Name
During the 1800s, an oven was little more than a large stone cabinet with a fire lit underneath it. Under these circumstances, temperature control was essentially non-existent. As a result, French bakers had only two oven “settings”: blazing hot, and cooling down. The blazing hot setting was reached when the coals under the oven were burning at maximum capacity. This mode of cooking was referred to as “grand four” – literally, “big oven” – and was used to cook meats. Once the fire under the stone oven was extinguished, much of the heat was retained. Consequently it took a very long time for these ovens to cool down. This cooling process, when the oven still retained some latent heat, was referred to as petit four. The trapped heat was just enough to cook tiny, individual pastries – which eventually assumed the name of the type of oven they were cooked in.

Types of Petits Fours
The vast variety of petits fours is traditionally categorized into the following four types:

Petits fours sec: These are dry cookies baked at a low temperature for a long time. Popular examples include sable beurre, palmiers, duchesses and macarons.

Petits fours glaces: Tiny cakes that are topped with marzipan and then enrobed in either fondant or chocolate. This type of petit four is usually elaborately decorated with intricate piping.

Petits fours frais: These petits fours are any small pastries that must be eaten the same day they are made because they lose significant quality the longer they sit. Examples include sponge cakes such as madeleines and financiers as well as cream-filled pastries like eclairs and tartlets.

Petits fours deguises: Desserts in this category consist of fresh or dried fruit that is dipped in a sweet coating such as chocolate or cooked sugar.

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