Petit four, literally "small oven," is the technical term for those tiny little nothings that you find peppered on trays at cocktail parties and on the coffee table at fancy dinners. They exist either as mini-pastries, mini-pizzas, or independent contraptions made out of paste, fruits, meat, foie gras: the capacity for chefs and caterers to invent new and different kinds of petits fours is limitless. They serve as appetizers or even a full meal, depending on circumstance. Most of them are quite mundane. A few of them are veritable bombs, small and concealed under the unconspicuous aspect of food, ready to explode with delicious flavor as soon as you pop them in your mouth.
A little history
I'm sure you're wondering why appetizers would be called little ovens. And if not, you should. People who use expressions without knowing what they mean are annoying. Anyway, let's flash back to the 18th century, the 1790s to be exact. While the French Revolution was changing the country, and soon the world, irremediably, a quieter, less lethal, but equally important revolution was taking place: the birth of the restaurant.
Yes, I know, only a Frenchman would call a new kind of eating an event on par with the human landslide which brought to the world, at the same time, liberal democracy as a universal ideal, and the first totalitarianism. But French I am, and our ability to rock the world's brains and their stomachs at the same time is an example of what we pompously—but accurately—call le génie Français.
Before the restaurant, eateries were hostels. You went there to stay the night as you slowly travelled on horseback and, for a little extra, you could be served a plateful of whatever was slowly cooking in the big pot in the fireplace. This is the kind of place where Louis XVI was recognized, and arrested. This is the kind of place where all of Europe ate out, and had eaten out since time immemorial. As a matter of fact, "ate out" is a kind of figure of speech: the concept of eating out as we know it today didn't exist, precisely because restaurants did not exist.
However, in the revolutionary years, Paris was ebullient. The city was still the cultural and political capital of the world, the city where the universal language of the civilized world was best spoken. And during the Revolution, it was the city where everything was possible. Ideas swirled faster than air in a tornado. At every street corner, you could find a man ready to explain to you that the best solution to all problems was the abolition of government, the end of private property, the death of the King, the return of the King, absolutism, democracy.
There was a fierce demand for places where like-minded people could get together and blurt out grandiose plans to change humanity for the better. A demand for public places, where people from all classes and backgrounds could meet, that the private salons of the Ancien Régime did not fill. And since the French never change the world better than with a stomach full of good food and good wine, that demand was filled by restaurants and cafés.
For the first time, you could sit at a table, read a menu from which you could pick and order whatever you liked for a several-course meal. You could choose! In those days liberty was everywhere, even in your plate. You could sit at a table, shaded from the bright revolutionary sun by the arches of the Palais-Royal, order tea, hot chocolate or coffee, and watch the gardens, where intellectuals, writers, aristocrats, peoplefolk, businessmen and politicians mingled. In those days, everyone was a little bit of all those things, just like the women, who were courtesans and wives, actresses and maidens.
There were no gas ovens, no bottles of butane or propane. The only kind of oven there was was the breadmaker's oven, a huge hut made out of stone, under which you lit a fire. It took a long time to start, became really really hot for a while, and then took a long time to die: it didn't exactly have a knob you could turn to change the heat. In fact, it only had two settings.
The first setting was the grand four, big oven, where the fire was at its fiercest gave a pretty good impression of hell, the time when the roasts, the boars, the pigs, the beef ribs, the platters of vegetables and potatoes were inserted to bake.
And the second setting was the petit four, when the fire started to die out and the heat to decline, when you could bake individual pastries and bite-size appetizers to serve with coffee. And just like, by extension, the places where you could order un café s'il-vous-plaît became cafés, the tiny, novelty foods became petits fours after the way they were prepared.
Now that you know how petits fours came to be (and I'm sure it was an enlightening experience), you probably want some advice on how to make them, maybe even recipes. Well, here's my advice on how to cook petits fours: don't.
If you're reading E2, odds are you're a relatively intelligent person, and if you're a relatively intelligent person, odds are you're painfully aware of how mind-numbing dumb, repetitive tasks can be. Nothing is more dumb and repetitive than making petits fours, even noding for numbers. At least when you're peeling potatoes or dicing onions, it's practice, and you slowly get better. You can only get so good at wrapping a slice of bacon around a prune. Once you have a black belt in petit-four-do, which you will acquire in under five minutes, you are just burning up precious time of your short life that you will never get back. Don't wait until you're on your death bed to realize you could have used your petit four time to kiss the girl you love or write the great American novel, becaue you will realize it, and by that time it will be too late. You will be alone, unhappy, and dead. Do you want to be alone, unhappy and dead? If not, don't make petits fours. That is my advice.
"But, LeoDV!" you ask, a twinge of despair in your voice, getting all misty-eyed. "I have a party coming up, and I want to impress my friends, I need to have petits fours! You are my last hope!" If you need petits fours to make your friends like you I would recommend getting new friends, but okay. After taking you on a stroll through the 18th century, let me introduce you to the 21st century.
The frozen foods section of the 21st century. For a long while, freezing food was a disastrous enterprise, almost like a magic trick: you had food, you put it in a box, and it was magically transformed into a tasteless, watery sponge. Your freezer was the angry Houdini of gastronomy. However, as it tends to do, the technology has evolved, and frozen foods, once unfrozen, can now be quite palatable. I use frozen ingredients all the time, something I wouldn't even have considered a few years ago. Your local purveyor of frozen food will doubtlessly have boxes of ready-made petits-fours that you can just pop into your oven and watch turn into mouth-watering little finger magnets.
Trust the instructions on the box for oven time and heat (assuming your oven has more than grand and petit four settings), but not for quantities. If you have a party of 4 and your box says "For a party of 4," get two boxes. Or three. Have you ever seen someone get ridiculously drunk without realizing, only because they're drinking something like whisky and coke, which tastes harmless but still hits you like a punch in the gut? It's kind of the same thing with petits fours. They're tiny, you eat 'em without thinking about it, and before you've realized it you've absentmindedly popped the equivalent of dinner for a family of seven plus the dog in your mouth, bite-size sample by bite-size sample. If you're afraid of leftovers, don't worry. Nothing makes a better quick meal than leftover petit fours. You'll have a delicious lunch in the morning.
"But, LeoDV!" you repeat, not getting on my nerves at all. "I'm not just having friends over, I'm also having my boss, and his wife, and his boss, and his wife, and they will notice my petits fours were frozen and they will despise me and they will fire me and my house will be repossessed and I will kill myself and my spiteful children will piss on my grave!" All right. My advice would be to write that you want flowers on on your grave in your last will; the urine will act as a fertilizer. A flowery grave is really beautiful, don't you think?
Or, you could call a caterer, who will cater to your petits fours needs (but not your self-esteem issues, I'm afraid). Look them up on the Interweb, ask around, don't just phone up, pay them a visit and eat some samples. If you like what you taste, there you are. Delicious petits fours for you. Your job won't be outsourced to Mexico, your Mom will stop crying whenever she sees you, and your children will stop praying for you to die. I know that caterers are expensive. So, if you can't afford the caterer, the frozen food section is still there for you. In my view, it's one or the other.
There is a third way, however: stop fooling yourself that ridiculous tiny fancy French foods are the way to eat and just cook a really good meal, with good ingredients, the right seasoning, and the right cooking—and a little bit of love.
A good meal, good wine, good friends—who needs petits fours? Enjoy.
Or you could just look up petits fours recipes on Google...