John Maher: Hi. I’m John Maher and I’m here today with Chef Ned Grieg, corporate chef at the Essex Room in Essex, Massachusetts. Today we’re talking about classic French petits fours. Welcome, Chef Ned.
Chef Ned Grieg: Good morning.
John: Chef Ned, what are petits fours?
Chef Ned: It’s my favorite dessert.
John: Oh, yeah?
Chef Ned: Yeah. It’s just a bite size morsel of sweetness and a surprise inside. There’s something about a petits fours. I don’t know why. It’s just a . . . to me, it’s the epitome of a perfect little dessert to have with an espresso.
John: Okay. Explain what it is.
Chef Ned: Petits fours, the French word actually means ‘little oven’. I don’t know where that came from because to me, I’ve always thought of petits fours as being a cake.
John: A little cake would make more sense maybe.
Chef Ned: Yeah. I actually looked up the meaning again before I came in to talk to you today and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a pastry. It can also be a savory, but I always kind of denote a miniature savory as an amuse-bouche which means ‘little bite’ which also qualifies a petits fours. Petits fours, to me, are miniature one bite-size pieces of dessert. That’s a compressed cake. It doesn’t have to be one particular type of cake over another though you certainly can . . . traditionally, it’s usually used with one type which is like a white cake. Then it has a very thin translucent sugary glaze that goes over the top of it.
If you go to a classic French pastry store, they’ll embellish it with using miniature pastry bags and they’ll use some more icings to put little polka-dots on them or little leaves and some embellishment of that nature. To me, it’s a perfect balance of the right amount of cake to the right amount of sugary glaze. I don’t know. It’s so easy to eat a half a dozen of them.
Fondant Fancy and Petit Fours
John: I’ve heard of something called a fondant fancy. Is that similar?
Chef Ned: It is similar although a fondant is different substance. It is made usually from an almond paste and sugar. It is rolled out and obviously if it’s going to be a miniature fondant fancy, you’d have to roll it quite thinly because you want it to be able to lap over an envelope the whole miniature piece of cut cake. Whenever I’ve seen what they call fondant fancies is when I was working in Manhattan. They would do them on Easter time, especially in some of the west side bakeries. They would do them . . . it would look like half of an egg, especially around Easter time, and then they’d roll this fondant that would go over the top of it. It was more like a little cake that you’d put on a plate.
Chef Ned: It, to me, that’s very sweet. I’m not a big fan of fondant because it’s so sweet. It almost . . . I can feel my teeth right now just biting through a piece.
John: It makes the outside of the cake look nice and smooth.
Chef Ned: Yes.
John: A little hard to eat sometimes.
Chef Ned: You can make a cake with fondant on it and I swear to God, it’s kind of like fruit cake at Christmas time. It can look that way for a year. I do not mean to speak down about a fondant fancies and cakes of that nature because some people just really truly enjoy the flavor and the texture of it. For my taste, personally, I prefer it with a classic French petit fours. They’re smaller bite-size pieces. They’re not so sugary sweet. I think that it’s a . . . there seems to be more variety that you can put together when you do a petit fours.
Getting Creative with Petit Fours
John: You mentioned sort of the classic French petite fours with a white cake and this sort of very simple glaze on the top. You’re branching out from that a little bit and doing some different things. What are the different things that you’re doing with petits fours?
Chef Ned: Yes, when I first came to work for the Woodman Restaurant Corporation here in the Essex Room, in particular, I was doing what they call rainbow petits fours, which meant there were three different colors. It was . . . I could tailor the petit fours to match the flowers and the color of the bride’s dresses or whatever was going on at the top. I would actually use an almond flavored cake. Here we go. I’m talking about a fondant cake and using almond paste and I never use it that much, but in order to get the cake to be dense enough and hold together enough and do three very thin layers, I would have to use an almond paste to make an almond cake. Then we just, we color it with different food colorings and so it looked like a little rainbow. That was an interesting one I did with an almond flavored cake.
My favorite one that I’ve been working on is I’ve been doing one with candied carrot and lemon peel. It’s the best carrot cake ever, ever and then I would do the classic little fondant glaze over the top and then I’d candy some walnuts, but I would do it with a little bit of sea salt and then make a little crumble and put that on top. You’re eating truly just a little miniature carrot cake but changing all the ingredients so they were just a little bit different what you’ve ever had before.
You could really do it with any type of cake. I’ve done them with German chocolate cake before that had toasted coconut on top. I’ve done it with red velvet cake. We had some clients that were from Floridian culture and they thought, “Oh, they wanted the red velvet cake that they had at the Bubble Room on Santa Bell Island.” I said, “Okay. I’ve been there. I can do that.” We will change it up according to the perspective and to the need of the client and what they’re — they always get to taste it first. We always make sure that we have a tasting of their wedding menus and wedding desserts before they sign off on it.
Chef Ned: At least they get an idea, but I always try to make it better the next time anyway.
Petit Fours for All Occasions
John: Those sound really great. What types of events are good for serving petits fours? Obviously, weddings are a great idea.
Chef Ned: The weddings are really wonderful. Baby showers, bridal showers seem to be very popular because a petit fours is something — it’s very brunchy-oriented. I think of Sunday. Sundays are a good day to have a petit fours. It works really well at brunches as well. It’s a little package. It’s just . . . there isn’t any time that a petit fours doesn’t really work out that well. What’s wrong with having a couple of petits fours with your cup of coffee for breakfast, as far as I’m concerned?
Chef Ned: Yes, they’re wonderful at brunches. They’re really good at showers for brides and/or for babies and they’re really good from noon until midnight. There really doesn’t seem to be a bad timeframe in that 12 hours to consume a petit fours. If you have any particular event — and also, they transport quite nicely. You can have an 85-degree day outside and you know that they’re still going to hold up if you’re going to put them out on an outdoor ceremony. That’s something that you might want to think about as well.
John: Okay. That’s really great information and they just sound amazing. I’m looking forward to having those.
Chef Ned: Okay. I’ll make you a batch and I’ll drop them off for you.
John: Sounds good. Thanks again to Chef Ned for talking to me today.
Chef Ned: You bet. Thank you.
John: For more information, you can visit the Essex Room website at EssexRoom.com or call 978-768-7335.