Step into any fine dining restaurant or bakery and you’re bound to see patrons snacking on what look like sweet tapas-style bites. You overhear the dessert is smoked bone marrow toffee accompanied by frozen yeast toast and chocolate-wrapped Earl Grey honeycomb, and the shock sets in knowing it isn’t your traditional bite-size dessert. Enter the petit four identity crisis. A modern day renaissance of an age-old dessert is upon the pastry world and as with any change there are those who embrace the evolving petit four and the traditionalists begging for a return to normalcy.
A Little History
With its literal translation meaning “little oven,” petit fours didn’t get that name because they were baked in an EasyBake oven but because back in the Eighteenth Century they were baked after the day’s goods. Once the coals began to die, the brick ovens still retained much of their heat—albeit more delicate than earlier in the day. Not wanting to waste the precious coals, pastry chefs would bake small treats.
Fast forward to 1967, and petit fours became the foresight of bridal showers and grandma’s birthday. The waxy, artificially colored one inch square sponge cakes so lovingly drenched in fondant were all the rage. Unknowingly, Americans fell into a trap of adoration when it came to fancy French named foods, much like macarons today. What was once small bite size “precious” cakes has now became a pastry chef’s way to further tap their creativity and skills.
The Petit Four Renaissance
What we’re facing is a change in the industry. Gone are the fancy filigrees and pastel ridden fondants. Instead modern bakeries, pastry shops and restaurants are catering to a millennial charged marketplace that is fueled by creativity and an expanded palette of flavors. Contemporary pastry shops are paving the way for a new pursuit of what old traditions have taught us and what a new generation thrives on. From innovative molds and the styling of petit fours to the flavors, texture and layers, the stakes are much higher to be unique and offer an experience. The bite-sized treats are also trending because they fulfill consumer’s want for indulgence but allow for moderation to be practiced for those watching their waistlines.
The renaissance movement of these once classical French pastries has now evolved into something that embodies the spirit of the restaurant or bakery. Arrays of stunning sweets are offered after—and even before meals—as a sort of impressionistic alter. Once unfamiliar in the terms we view them now, petit fours have a renewed allure about them. Despite the endless innovation and variety out there, there’s most certainly one thing that will always remain, a petit four should be small enough to eat in one bite. Unfortunately, too many pastry chefs and bakers view petit fours as shrunken versions of their normal dessert offerings. There seems to be a disconnect between what petit four means in a fine dining restaurant and what it means in a New Jersey bakery. It’s not to say that one’s interpretation is wrong and the other is right, but there’s surely a blurred line in the industry. The name petit four is also in limbo with more modern verbiage including monoportions, bite-sized dessert, dessert tapas, minis and more. Many question if the term petit four has simply vanished with the housewives of the 1960s.
With nostalgia continuing to be a trend that breathes life into virtually lost concepts of the past, it’s hard to say if the petit fours of yesteryear will make a triumphant return, especially when change has been for the better in the eyes of pastry chefs. Consumers however are the ones spending their paychecks on snacks and indulgences throughout the day and shaping the industry with their wants and needs. So as we look to the future the decision is really in their hands. Until then like any pastry, the petit four will continue to evolve each step of the way.