Oh, happy, happy day. Well, night, actually. The class I had been waiting for finally arrived: petits fours. Hooray! Petits fours ([pet ti forz]) are all manner of delightful bite-sized sweets – exactly my kind of treat. And my classmates and I would be making a whole bunch of them. And even more exciting, I would finally learn to make the elusive French macaron, which is not to be confused with the American macaroon, which I happen to adore and which I would also learn to make. I’m kicking myself for any disparaging words I may have ever uttered or written about Pastry Techniques 101.
You may know petits fours only as the miniature cakes often served at bridal shower luncheons, afternoon tea or, perhaps, at your grandmother’s house for a special occasion. But petits fours are oh-so-much more than that. In fact, there are three distinct categories of petits fours: glacé, frais and sec. This is important because, according to Chef, not only must you be concerned about the size of the petits fours you make (always only one or two bites), but also the variety of petits fours on the plate you serve. With three different categories, variety should be the least of your concerns.
Glacé ([glah say]) means “iced” in French. A petit four glacé is a petit four that has a sugar glaze or icing on it – the common miniature cake. Chef seemed perturbed enough by the humdrum, ubiquitous nature of petits fours glacés that we didn’t make any of this category. Instead, we focused the night’s efforts on petits fours frais and petits fours secs.
Frais is the French word meaning “fresh.” While I like to think all petits fours are fresh, I suppose this category refers to the fact these petits fours are assembled soon before eating and do not have much of a shelf life. The class made tartlettes (miniature tarts) filled with lemon curd and frangipane, fruit mousse domes and profiteroles and eclairs filled with pastry cream.
The word sec ([seck]) means “dry” in French. Petits fours of this type, typically, are small cookies. Petits fours secs that we made in class included: cigarette russe, palais raisins, Japonnaise, madeleines, sacristans, tuilles and sablée. [sig ah rette roose], [pah lay ray san], [jah po nayz], [mad de lehnz], [sack rah stanz], [twee], and [sah blay]. So exotic sounding, non? No wonder Chef wanted to focus on petits fours secs. But the best part about petits fours secs? Drumroll, please…French macarons and American macaroons.
Many people pronounce macaron and macaroon as [mack ah ROON]. Please don’t be upset with yourself if you’ve made this mistake. I think I may have. But, they are not pronounced the same way and they are in no way the same petit four sec. A French macaron is pronounced [mack ah rohn] (note there is only one “o”), and it is essentially a meringue and almond paste cookie baked in such a way that the outside is the littlest bit crispy and the inside is soft and chewy. Most often you find two macarons sandwiched together with a filling in the middle. I suppose you could eat a plain, individual macaron, and Chef claims that back in the day that is the only way they were eaten, but I don’t know why you would do that. The fun comes from enjoying the perfect union of taste and texture resulting from all the different fillings conjoined with the macarons.
Now, if you have not had macarons, I urge you to seek them out and have a few. They are truly wonderful little creations. Unlike in France where entire sections of bakeries are devoted to les macarons (the most famous being Ladurée in Paris), they can be hard to find (really good ones, anyway) in the United States, but the effort spent looking will be well worth it.
Perhaps not as highbrow as the French macaron, the American macaroon is a wonderful little creation in its own right. Probably anyone reading this has had a macaroon, but if you haven’t, I’ll sum it up as follows: coconut. And meringue. That’s it. (Although sometimes you might find them dipped in or drizzled with chocolate, but that’s a hipster macaroon, not the tried and true classic.) Who knew that a “cookie” made solely from meringue and coconut could bring the kind of happiness and satisfaction that a coconut macaroon brings? If you aren’t a lover of coconut, these words probably fall flat. But if you love coconut as much as I do, you know what I’m talking about. Interestingly, other than sharing meringue as an ingredient, macarons and macaroons couldn’t be more dissimilar, so I’m not sure how almost identical names were ever associated with the two. (I’m adding this to my Google research to-do list.)
While each Pastry Techniques 101 class has been a memorable experience, petits fours class was the most exhilarating to date. Chef put the assignments up on a white board, let us each pick the petit four we wanted to make, the (figurative) cannon went off and we were off to the races! But, first each team made its own macarons. Ally and I made yellow-colored ones which we figured would look nice and go well with lemon curd and raspberry jam fillings. (On a side note, colored macarons are made by adding food coloring and usually don’t have a flavor associated with the color. Although flavor can be added to a macaron through spices or a nut flour other than almond flour, generally the flavor comes from the filling.)
After making and piping our own macarons, the class had about an hour and half to get the petits fours party put together. I imagine the whirlwind activity that evening is similar to life in a bakery, and I loved every minute of it. Dashing about to get my pate sucree for the lemon curd and frangipane tartlettes that I chose to make, rolling out the dough, stamping it out into approximately 40 quarter-sized tartlette rounds (as well as the bases for about 35 fruit mousse domes that I was also tasked with), baking the tartlette rounds, filling them, all the while seeing if anyone else needed help, giving instructions to classmates who came to see if I needed help, chatting with Ally while she made sacristans and working on other petits fours projects as assigned. This is my idea of a great time, folks.
Some scenes from the night’s action:
The night was exciting and fast-paced, but, truly, the best part came at the very end – the petits fours party. I imagine also much like life in a bakery, we sampled our work, commented on how we might change this or that, exchanged ideas for twists on classics and had a chance to just savor the moment. Oh, and we got to take home a big tub of petits fours. Come to think about it, maybe that was truly the best part!