Hi. I was wondering just what Petit Fours are, how the word is pronounced and where the name came from. Can you help?--Denise
The word Petit Four is pronounced most often in North America as "PET-ee for", but comes from the French term for a small fire or oven, pronounced more like "PUH-tee foor".
Petit Fours are small baked goods such as cakes, pastries or cookies. They are usually sweet dessert items, although they may sometimes be savory appetizers. Cookies like cat tongues (langue de chat in French), madeleine, macaroons and meringues are all forms of petit fours. They can also be elaborately decorated miniatures of large cakes, covered in icing or fondant and iced with bows or curlicues.
Small tarts and pastries such as eclairs may also be considered petit fours.
A slightly broader but less common term is Mignardise (pronounced MIN-yar-deez). Mignardise are sometimes lumped together in the same category as petit fours, but since some are not baked in an oven (i.e. chocolates, mousses, fruit compot) technically they are not synonymous. Mignardise have started to appear more regularly at upscale, chichi restaurants as a small plate of complimentary sweets served at the end of a meal.
As to where the term comes from, I have seen two explanations. Larousse Gastronomique attributes the term "petit four" to the 19th century French cook and pastry chef Carême, who claimed that they were made at the end of the useful heat of an oven when only small items would cook through. When ovens were large wood-fired brick or iron monsters, the oven would be heated very hot at the start of the day and a progression of items would be cooked, each at a progressively lower temperature ending with the petit fours. In this case, petit four would mean small or low heat.
Alternately, Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food suggests that petit four literally refers to a small oven used specifically for baking them.
Personally, I prefer the first explanation since it is more reasonable and economical than having a unitasker oven built just for cooking small cakes. Also, it is consistent with current practices in the way wood-fired bread ovens are used.