Introduction: Petit Fours (Tiny Cakes)
In the 80s, my family would receive a catalog (name withheld to protect the colonial Swiss) that was filled with mail-order gifts like sausage and cheese. The highlight of the catalog were these perfect little tiny cakes called “petit fours.” I would dream of ordering the giant box of them, of course they would be more delicous than regular cakes: These are micro cakes! As an adult, I finally was able to try the catalog cakes, and they really are just tiny cakes. My partner and I had a chance to try the real thing at a tiny bakery near our house and we had to try our hands at making them.
(Side note: Petit fours is French for “small oven” and is a reference to early wood or coal ovens having only two temperatures: Roaring hot (the grand four), and cooling down. The petit fours were cooked during this cooling down period. Petit four now typically refers to a specific category of dessert. The petit fours we’re making are “petits four glace” or tiny cakes glazed with icing.
The secret to making a cake that works on such a tiny scale is to use a very dense cake that isn’t super spongy. We went with a frangipan. If you don’t like the taste of almonds, you would definitely want to go with a pound cake recipe. I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the taste of almonds, but it really went well with the cherry and chocolate. We did a layer of cherry and two layers of chocolate and used dark chocolate ganache for our coating. I think the small size coupled with the intense cherry / almond / chocolate was fantastic. They were the perfect accompaniment for a cup of coffee.
Some notes: This is not a quick recipe. The cake has to chill overnight. You'll also need a lot of pans and a lot of patience. You'll be making cakes and fillings and this is even with us taking a bunch of shortcuts. However, stay the course and you'll be rewarded with a delicious treat that no catalog could ever deliver.
Step 1: Ingredients
Frangipane (Almond Cake)
One of the secrets to good baking is weighing your ingredients. Weighing rather than measuring ingredients by volume gives more consistent results. If you don't have a food scale, you can pick them up fairly cheap online. We had gotten ours originally for weighing coffee, but it's been great for baking as well. I did try to put an estimate of the quantity in parenthesis because it definitely makes it easier when you're shopping.
Also, you'll see a couple of ingredients listed twice. This is because you will use them at different times, so it's just easier to weigh them separately.
Note: All your cake ingredients should be at room temperature
- 13 ounce Almond Paste (Almost two boxes)
- 4 ounce Sugar
- 1 ounce Egg (You'll use around 9-10 large eggs total for this recipe.)
- 9 ounce Sugar
- 6.5 ounce Unsalted Butter (Around a stick and a quarter)
- 6.5 ounce Shortening (About a cup)
- 12 ounce Eggs
- 1/4 ounce Vanilla extract (About 1/8 a cup)
- 6 ounce Cake Flour (Sifted) (Around a cup)
- Marzipan Dough - Chilled (We used a 7 oz. box, but you could always make your own.)
- A jar of your favorite preserves (You could also make your own fruit filling. Just make sure it's isn't too chunky. We thinned ours with a little warm water, just to make it more spreadable.)
Ganache Coating / Filling
- 16 oz Dark Chocolate (Four big Ghirardelli-sized bars of chocolate)
- 16 oz Heavy Cream (One pint)
- Your favorite buttercream icing, royal icing, fondant, etc. You could also use dragees (the little hard shelled silver candies) or sprinkles
Note: You'll need 8 to 10 pounds of weights (for compressing the cake pans later).
Step 2: Making the Frangipane: Getting the Oven and Pan Ready
Pre-heat your oven to 375°F.
If you're like us, you have half-sheet baking pans (13" x 18"). This recipe fills a full-sheet pan or two half-sheets. If you're using half-sheets, you'll also need a third one (you don't have to flour / grease it) for transferring. If you're using full-sheets you'll need a second one. You'll want to use a sheet with a lip.
Take a baking sheet and grease it with shortening or butter.
Lay a sheet of parchment on top of the greased baking sheet and smooth it down. The first bit of grease will ensure the parchment sticks nice and flat to the pan.
Now, grease the parchment so the cake won't stick to it. Sift a little flour into the pan and shake it around making sure it's well-coated before pouring off the excess.
This seems like a lot of work, but when your cake practically slides off the pan onto your table it will all pay off.
Step 3: Making the Frangipane: the Batter
Blend together all the almond paste (13 ounces) and sugar (4 ounces). Break up the almond paste and get the whole thing looking like sand. We used the paddle attachment on the mixer, but a food processor would have worked too. If you used a food processor, you will definitely want to transfer it to a mixer after you've combined the paste and sugar. Your end goal is to create a smooth lump-free mix.
Lightly whisk the egg (1 ounce) and then slowly add it to the almond paste / sugar mix and blend until smooth. While you want a smooth mix, you don't want to over mix.
Add the sugar (9 ounces), butter (6.5 ounces), and shortening (6.5 ounces) and mix together until light and fluffy. Slowly add the rest of the eggs (12 ounces) and vanilla (1/4 ounce). Slowly add in the sifted cake flour (6 ounces) and blend until smooth and creamy. Like with the almond mixture, you don't want to over mix.
Step 4: Making the Frangipane: Baking and Marzipan
Spread the batter into the lined baking sheet. The smoother you make the top the smoother your final cake will be. A cake spatula is the perfect tool for this.
Bake at 375°F for 10 to 12 minutes. You want the cake to be firm but don't let the edges get dry. Dry = crumbly = wasted cake!
Step 5: Prepare the Ganache
Ganache is super simple to make. You'll make it twice for this recipe. Once as a filling and once as a coating. If you make the ganache before you cook the frangipane, it will have enough time to cool to a spreadable consistency. For coating the cakes, you'll want to be ready to dip.
For the filling, we used two bars and 8 ounces of the heavy cream.
Break up your chocolate (you can use a food processor, just don't melt it). The finer the chocolate is chopped the easier it will melt.
Using a double boiler, bring the cream to a barely a boil. We use medium-high heat on my stove. Pour the cream over the chocolate. Let stand for ten minutes. Gently stir until the chocolate and cream are smoothly mixed. You don't want to overwork it. The results should be smooth and glossy.
For the filling, let it cool until it's spreadable.
Step 6: Fillings
Lay parchment on the back of your clean pan and lay it on top of the finished cake. Flip it over to transfer the cake from the pan to the back of the sheet. If you're using a half-sheet, you're going to want to cut the cake into thirds. (You need three equal-sized pieces of cake to make the "sandwich.") Don't worry about being pretty during this step, we'll trim the edges later on.
Lay one sheet of cake on the back of a parchment-lined baking pan, and spread a 1/8" thin layer of your jam (we thinned the jam with a little warm water). Top with the second sheet of cake and add your chocolate. Top with the third and final layer of cake, but this time spread a very thin layer of jam or chocolate (your choice) on top.
Step 7: Marzipan
Roll out a 1/16" thick sheet of marzipan about the same size as the cake. Roll it loosely around the rolling pin and unroll it on top of the cake. Run the rolling pin over the top (carefully, you don't want to pick the marzipan back up). This will become the bottom of the cake. The marzipan keeps the cake moist and it gives it a smooth bottom.
Step 8: Chilling the Layers
Put a piece of parchment on top of the marzipan and put your second baking pan on top.
Use that pan to flip the entire cake upside down. Remove the original pan, and wrap the entire cake and bottom pan with plastic wrap. Now place the empty baking pan on top. Put weights on top of this pan. A couple of hand weights (no more than 10 pounds total) will work. (We used a big bowl of left over chili.) This squishes the cake layers together and makes sure everything gets sealed down. Put the whole thing in the refrigerator and chill the cake overnight.
Step 9: Trimming
Now comes the fun part. Trim the cake so you have clean, smooth edges. (The trimmings are also delicious. Especially with a bowl of ice cream.) In the photos, we're using a pizza cutter. However, a serrated knife would have been a better choice for less crumbs and a smoother profile. Cut the cake into 1" x 1" pieces.
Step 10: Coating
Follow the same recipe for ganache as before, but don't let it cool down. Traditionally, the cakes sit on a wire mesh rack and the ganache gets poured over them. Our wire racks were a little too wide for the cakes, so we skewered the cakes and twirled them in the ganache.
We also took a few shortcuts when it came to the decorating. You can do the same, or you can lose yourself in the world of decorating. (Here’s a collection of my favorite cake decorating instructables.) In the end, I chose to go with simple off-the-shelf cans of icing because I didn’t have a lot of time. My decorations were very minimal, but I really think you do need some kind of decoration to make the cakes really pop.