Years ago, I came across the most beautiful petits fours image in a Martha Stewart magazine. I made a point of checking to see who made them and it referenced Dragonfly Cakes. The name stuck, so when I came across The Petit Four Cookbook by Brooks Coulson Nguyen and noticed that Dragonfly Cakes was her business, I immediately flipped through the pages and again recognized the gorgeous little treats.
The literal translation of petit four is “little oven,” but as Nguyen explains on her site, she calls them ornately decorated, elegant little cakes. They usually have at least two layers of cake, often three, interspersed with buttercream, jam, ganache or other fillings, and while they are classically topped with poured fondant, they can also be draped with chocolate coating. They might not be a common pastry for the home baker to tackle, but that might be because there was never a book on the topic so well laid out and descriptive to help us along.
I chatted with Brooks and got some extra tips for you. The next time you have an event, want to serve a crowd, impress folks with your skills and have fun individualizing with decorations, consider making petits fours.
Dédé Wilson: Brooks, I am so happy to finally be speaking with you. I first came across your work years ago and was captivated. Tell me how you came to focus on petits fours?
Brooks Coulson Nguyen: I had been in the corporate world – telecom industry – and I left to go to culinary school at the CIA in Napa.
To focus on baking and pastry?
Yes, and after graduation I worked in wedding cake shops for a while. Eventually, I decided to get back to my sales and marketing roots and I went to work for food distributors. Through a lot of observation, I realized that petits fours were an item that I could mail-order and that would work with distribution channels that I was familiar with. I wanted to follow my passion, but it was a business decision, too.
I love their size, that they are so small. I get to make something creative and colorful and ornate. It’s what keeps me interested. There are so many options for decorations.
We are going to feature your Raspberry Petits Fours. Please give us some tips for making petits fours at home.
You can use almost any cake. Pound cake is good because it is sturdy. You can use softer cakes, like sponge cakes, but they will make more crumbs. The most important thing is to use a recipe that you really like and that you are really familiar with.
You must make large batches. Any clues about scaling down the home kitchen?
Well a full-sized sheet pan makes 200 petits fours for us. You should stick with a half sheet pan to keep it manageable. Bake the cake, split and fill it, then freeze it at that stage. This will help you cut clean pieces. Then after you cut your shapes, freeze again. This will minimize crumbs for when you are dipping.
I also recommend that you use a soaking syrup. If you know they will be frozen for a long time, or stored for a while after dipping, use more syrup to keep them moist.
Many of your petits fours are covered with chocolate. Do you have a preferred brand?
When I was working on the book, I made sure to test with ingredients that anyone could get from Amazon. Look for Merkens and Guittard coating chocolates, for instance.
Do you have a preferred method for melting?
Yes. I think a double boiler can get very hot, so make sure that the water is just simmering and not at a rapid boil. I use the microwave, too.
Sometimes I find coatings can still be thick after melting.
If that happens, you can add a teaspoon or more of vegetable oil to thin it out. This can make a huge difference. You can even strain it. You do need it to be smooth.
How about dipping tools? I like to just use plain old forks.
Me too! Normal forks are the easiest. I have a serving fork from Pottery Barn that is awesome. It has a wide base but it still lets the chocolate run off. I find a lot of tools that are made for dipping petits fours are too large. The tines are too far apart.
Many of the recipe in the book use a tinted coating. Do you have a favorite coloring?
Well, it has to be oil-based color to work with the coating chocolate. And err on side of going too light. You can always add more later!
Thank you Brooks. I feel like we are now prepared to try this ourselves! Your book is so well done. I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting to make petits fours at home.
Thank you, Dédé.