Nothing is prettier than an offering of elegant petit fours. The glazed cubes of layer cake that come festivally decorated in gold-foil boxes during Christmastime are perhaps the most well known; however, the term “petit four’” can be applied to any one-bite dessert. At pastry school, we spent two whole weeks studying petit fours, culminating in a gorgeous buffet of hundreds of miniature pastries lined up in perfect rows on tables spread with white tablecloths. We put together several buffets over the course of our studies, but none of them quite equaled the impact of that petit fours buffet.
Petit fours are traditionally grouped into four main categories, also all known by French terms: sec, frais, glacé, and deguisés. These separations are based mainly on how long the petit four can be stored before being served. Petit fours sec, the “dry” ones, have the longest storage life, usually 4 to 5 days at room temperature. This division is mostly made up of cookies, such as the ones that I’m going to give you the recipe for today.
Petit fours frais, as their name implies, must be served fresh, on the day they are made. So this means that they usually include a component that has to be kept under refrigeration, such as buttercream, lemon curd or whipped cream.
As for those glazed bites of layer cake, they belong under the glacé label, another fairly self-explanatory term. Glacé translates to “iced” or “glazed” in English, and thus the requirement to join this rank is that the pastry must be fully enrobed in some kind of glaze or icing. This casing extends the petit four’s shelf life to 2 or 3 days at room temperature.
The last group, deguisés, is the one that most people have probably never heard of; and most likely have never eaten either. The name means “disguised” and refers to fruits, both fresh and dried, or nuts that have been dipped into sugar boiled to the hard-crack stage. They look beautiful in their translucent coats of caramel, but they are rarely seen nowadays because they must be prepared only a few hours before serving: after that the moisture from the fruit begins to break down the sugar. (Nuts are the exception; they can be made the day before, as long as they are stored in a perfectly dry box.)
Petit fours sec, of course, thanks to their shelf-stableness and generally simple techniques, are the ones that make their appearance most often in our home kitchens. And these cookies, a piped French sablé, are one of the prettiest that I know. The dough is simple: just butter, sugar, egg yolk, flour, and salt, plus some kind of flavoring. The result is a rich and buttery cookie, with a meltingly tender crumb, like a French compromise between a British shortbread and an American sugar cookie. I will not make any attempt to say which tastes best—I love them all—but the French ones are infinitely more attractive than the others, since they can be piped into all sorts of dainty shapes.
I split my dough in half and flavored one half with lemon zest and extract, the other with cocoa powder and vanilla. I piped the lemon dough into stars and used the end of a wooden dowel to make indentations in the centers of the stars, which I then filled with strained blackberry jam. With the cocoa-flavored dough, I made swooping curlicues in the shape of figure eights.
When they came out of the oven, they looked so beautiful that it was almost hard to eat one. Almost.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line several baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
- In an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar. It is crucial that your butter be at room temperature. If it is not soft enough, the dough will end up being too stiff to pipe. I suggest getting the butter out of the refrigerator and leaving it on the counter for several hours before you make the cookies.
- Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract to the creamed butter, and mix well. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
- With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the flour and salt, and mix until a smooth dough is formed.
- Fit the #3 French star tip into your pastry bag. Then take the pastry bag in your left hand (or your right hand if you are left-handed) and fold the top of the bag down around your fist like a cuff (you can see this in action in one of my pictures above). Folding the bag down like this makes it easier and less messy to get the dough into the bag, and also allows you to hold it open with one hand, leaving the other free to scoop the dough into the pastry bag.
- Use a rubber spatula to transfer some of the dough into the pastry bag. Unfold the cuff, and twist the bag shut. Don’t put all the dough in at once; it’s much easier to pipe the cookies when you only have a small amount of dough in the bag.
- Now you’re ready to start piping. For stars, hold the pastry bag at a 90° angle, about ½ inch above the surface of one of the prepared baking sheets. Then start squeezing the dough out of the bag; once you have the beginning of a star, lower the tip closer to the baking sheet and continue squeezing until you have a flat star, about 1 inch in diameter. Stop applying pressure, and then pull the tip up and away. You should space cookies about 1 inch apart.
- Once you have filled an entire tray, take a dowel, dip the end of it in some confectioners’ sugar or flour, and make an indentation in the center of each star. Put the small round tip into the other pastry bag, and fill the bag with a few tablespoons of the seedless jelly.
- Fill the indentations with jelly.
- For the figure eights, hold the pastry bag at a 90° angle, a little bit above the surface of the baking sheet. Starting to the right, pipe a tight figure-eight, looping up, back down across the starting point, and then down around to the left, coming back up to end at the starting point. The finished shape should be about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide. Stop applying pressure; lift away the tip.
- Bake the cookies in the preheated oven, about 10 minutes for the stars and 12 minutes for the larger figure eights, rotating halfway through the baking. The edges of the cookies should be just starting to turn gold.
- Cool on the trays for a few minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
- The finished cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days, or wrapped well in plastic and stored in the freezer for 2-3 weeks.
Yield: about 8 dozen cookies
Lemon variation: Omit the vanilla extract and substitute ½ teaspoon lemon extract and 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest.
Cocoa variation: Replace half an ounce of the flour with an equal amount of cocoa powder (half an ounce of cocoa powder is about 3 tablespoons). With these cookies, of course, you can’t tell if the edges are turning gold; when done, the cookies should feel set when you nudge them with a finger, but the centers will still be soft enough for you to make an indentation in them.