For being so dainty, petits fours can really ravage a cook. They’re French for little ovens, which I guess was supposed to mean little baked goods. The way I made them, they have three components: genoise cake, a jam filling, and fondant icing.
Sadly, when I wrote the draft for this entry I forgot to link to the recipe I used for the cake, and now I don’t know what it was. I’ll edit if I find it. Genoise is French for “from Genoa”, which is a place in Italy. Go figure. (Actually, I think we use English versions of French versions of Italian place names quite often.) Because I’m a linguist and linguists are into typology, here’s the basic typology of cakes:
- I. Creamed cakes – leavened by creaming sugar into fat. Thus, fat is necessary.
- Example: pound cake
- Foam cakes – leavened with foam. This means they don’t need fat, although they can have it.
- Angelfood cake – leavened with egg white foam; contains no fat at all. People who conflate low-fat diets with morality are responsible for the name.
- Sponge cake – leavened with egg white foam and egg yolk foam; contains only fat from egg yolks.
- Chiffon cake – leavened with egg white foam and egg yolk foam; also contains oil.
- Genoise cake – leavened with whole egg foam, lightly heated; may also contain butter.
So now you know where Genoise fits in. I had never made one before and I was skeptical that whole eggs would create enough foam, but man was that a foamy cake. Eating the batter felt like eating bubble wrap, and the cake snapped, crackled, and popped when I took it out of the oven.
I baked the cake in a 13×9 in. pan and cut it into 32 pieces. Then I cut each piece if half and filled them with apricot jam, because that’s the kind I had. (I have an obsession with apricot products, but I always find the fresh ones disappointing. I’m told this is because good ones aren’t readily available.)
Finally, I had to make the fondant. The cool thing about this dessert was that I didn’t have to buy any ingredients to make it, even though it seems sort of special occasion-y. I had everything on hand already. Fondant is just sugar, water, and some kind of interferent – in this case, corn syrup – and a flavoring – I used the classic vanilla extract. You cook these (without the flavoring, which would lose its flavor in the high heat) to the soft ball stage, then cool to 140F, and then…well, the recipe I used said to put it in a food processor, which I don’t have, so I stirred it until it went from a clear syrup to a thick white mass. Then I heated it until it was pourable and started coating the petits fours in it. I had to keep heating it every so often, and when I heated it I stirred it to distribute the heat. The heat made water evaporate and the stirring made the crystals get bigger and bigger, so it got to the point where it stayed hard even when it was hot enough to burn me. Finally I realized what was going on and added some water. That did the trick, but one time I added too much water and ended up with a thin glaze. But after a few pours of that, it started thickening again and came full circle to about how it started out (except a little grainier for the wear).
They were not the prettiest dessert at our social event, but I did get some rave reviews (even from people who didn’t know I made them, which is key). I think each component was great, but that perhaps the fondant overwhelmed the rest. I’ll have to give that cake a try in an application where I can appreciate it a little more. Since they come out a little dry, it’s recommended to soak them in something. I’m not so much for rum, but I bet some sort of fortified wine would be great.
Edit: I have no idea how I missed this in my previous searches for information on poured fondant (it comes up right away now), but Joe Pastry has a great post on poured fondant that explains how to avoid my problem: let the fondant cool and harden, and then mix it with half a cup of a 2:1 sugar to water syrup (I’m guessing that’s by volume?) over low heat (keep the mix below 110F to avoid messing up the crystal structure, which is, after all, the only thing that makes fondant different from syrup), and then pour!