As Christmas is approaching, this week’s post is a frivolous look at a mainstay of the French apéritif, le petit four. At a party recently, someone challenged me to investigate the origins of the name, and Life on La Lune can’t resist a challenge (but please don’t ask me to try bungee jumping or potholing). For those of you who thought petits fours were simply post-prandial sweets to be nibbled with coffee, think again.
My carefully-laid plan to eat my way through the alphabet of French dishes has gone slightly awry. I have jumped from F to P in my French Flavours series, thus bypassing galette aux pommes, jambonneau and mourtayrol. Hang in there, and I’ll get back on the case.
Petit four typology
In the meantime, let’s look at what petits fours actually are. As ever, when you start to delve into something, you find it’s more complicated than you first thought.
First, they are miniature iced cakes, such as éclairs, chocolate profiteroles or sweet tartlets. Miniature desserts, such as mini chocolate mousses are called mignardises.
Second, they are sweet, dry mouthfuls, such as meringues or macaroons.
Finally, they are bite-sized savouries, normally with a pastry base or case, such as mini pizzas, cheese puffs or vol-au-vents. Today, the word is often used in a general sense to mean appetisers with drinks.
Alternative words in French for appetisers are mise-en-bouche (put in the mouth) and amuse-bouche (literally mouth pleaser; I suppose you might say palate tickler). A canapé is more specific and is usually a piece of bread, toast or cracker topped with something savoury. I’m not sure if the French use the word canapé in the same sense today. Incidentally, it also means a sofa.
Light my fire
How did the term petit four (literally little oven) originate? One source says that it dates back to the Renaissance, a time when ovens were built of stone or brick and there was no means of regulating the temperature. The fire took some time to prepare and to attain the right temperature, when it was used to bake bread but also to cook dishes such as roasts and casseroles – à grand four.
The theory is that smaller, more delicate pastries and cakes were cooked in the oven once the temperature had started to diminish – à petit four. This was a way of economising on fuel and taking advantage of the residual heat of the oven. The smaller items took on the name.
Let them eat cakes
After the Revolution, it is said, a wider public could afford treats previously reserved for the aristocracy. Let them eat cake, indeed. Then a new metier was born: that of pâtissier de petit four, somewhere between that of a pâtissier, who made large pastries, and a confisier, or confectioner. They made sweet petits fours, while the savoury ones were made by traiteurs and charcutiers.
So, armed with this knowledge you have a topic of conversation for your Christmas cocktail parties, while consuming a few petits fours.
Next up in a few days is an event you cannot miss: the Life on La Lune French Christmas Quiz, a cultural institution in its own right.
You might also like:
Copyright © 2017 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved