The other day at the coffee shop I noticed a new addition to their pastry shelf, petit fours. I bake pastries for a restaurant and the art museum near my house. I decided that maybe petit fours would be a good addition to the museum café. The art conscious like elegant desserts that are small enough to not inflict guilt. Petit fours would be perfect. These small square cakes are gone in a few bites and leave the feeling that they satiated the sweet tooth, yet don’t result in a stomachache from eating a full dessert portion. Everyone knows that ‘petit’ means ‘small’ in French. But what does ‘four’ mean? Is it a loanword to French from English? Do four of them together make a full dessert portion?
I looked it up and ‘four’ in French actually means ‘oven’ or ‘furnace’. So the translation of ‘petit four’ is ‘small oven’. This makes me think of a tiny little oven that only a small inch-by-inch cake could fit into. I’m not known for being the most efficient person in the kitchen, but something seems amiss there.
The real history of these miniature cakes is actually quite quaint and interesting. Originally in France, cooking was done in coal-fueled ovens. Unlike the efficient ovens of our day, the coal-heated ovens took a long time to both heat up and cool down. This meant that on either end of the oven’s desired hottest temperature was a period of a less hot oven; this was known as ‘petit four’ as opposed to ‘grand four’ or the hottest part of the oven cycle. The less hot oven was perfect for baking small cakes and so was born the ‘petit four’. The petit fours, of course, are not baked in small individual cake pans. That would be a nightmare. Rather they are baked as thin sheets that are then stacked and cut into squares. This is why the petit fours are commonly a layered cake despite being so small.