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Fancy That!

Petits Fours Enjoy a Renaissance With Los Angeles Pastry Chefs By Martin Booe

November 10, 2002|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe, a frequent contributor to the magazine, last wrote about spices.

"We went to the bakery and had espresso and petits fours," a friend said to me recently. She was only describing her day, but this got me to thinking. I hadn't thought of petits fours in years.

"Why would you do that?" I asked.

"Because they're delicious, and, all of a sudden, they're everywhere."

And, depending on your idea of a petit four, they are, indeed, all over the place. You find them increasingly at high-end bakeries and restaurants, such as Melisse, and especially at the better hotel restaurants, such as the Gardens at the Four Seasons Hotel. They're served as the overture to the full dessert.

What I remember of petits fours would be best left to the trash compactor of American culinary kitsch. A petit four, circa 1967 at the height of its popularity, was essentially a miniature English tea cake--a square inch of spongecake doused in a waxy, artificially colored (usually pink or green) fondant, perhaps adorned on top with some sort of decorative swirl. This was the stuff of bridal showers and birthdays. My mother would order them from some specialty catalog or another, mainly because her mother-in-law, one generation removed from England, adored them.

Or at least she professed to adore them. We all did. We adored them because they were fancy, and, of course, we ourselves were fancy people, and fancy people in general and our family in particular liked fancy things with fancy French names.

The box would arrive weeks later, and we would gather at the table for coffee or milk and coo over our petits fours as all high-born fancy people must. The fact was, we all secretly hated them. They were desiccated and tasted like clumps of sawdust sweetened with granulated sugar that had been glazed with resin.

It would be misleading to say that petits fours--as I knew them--are making a comeback in the United States, because until fairly recently we never knew the real thing. In their country of origin, they are something quite different. "Petit" means "little," and "four" means oven, so a petit four is a "little oven." As with many things French, this makes absolutely no sense until you trace it back to the 18th century. ''Little'' supposedly refers to the lower heat in which the bite-sized and more fragile morsels were baked, after the full-sized cakes and pastries came out of the oven. In France, there are several styles. One is miniature reproductions of individual cakes, such as baby eclairs and tartlets. Another is iced or glazed petits fours, which are probably closest to the old-school petits fours of my youth. They may be made of spongecake but are filled or layered with marzipan or pastry cream. Some petits fours are like little cookies. Others are candied fruits. And there is a whole range of savory petits fours served with aperitifs and as hors d'oeuvres. It is my observation that the first aforementioned category--those mini pastries and fruit-topped tartlets--are the most popular rendition.

Of course, when it comes to anything to do with baking, we have come a million miles since the days of those mail-order petits fours. Bear claws no longer represent the peak pastry experience in America, and Los Angeles is teeming with classically trained pastry chefs continually uplifting our palates.

Anna Delorefice, chef and co-owner of the recently opened SugarPlum Bakery on Beverly Boulevard, is one of them. "I wasn't sure people would really know what to do with them," she told me as I surveyed the trove of dandified confections winking from behind the glass bakery case. She needn't have worried. On this day, she'd produced 900 for a special event but usually sells about 200 a day. "It's like people were waiting for this. They're festive, and they're delicious."

"It's a bit like croissants and baguettes were when I first came here from France 23 years ago," says Julian Bohbot of Delice, a French kosher bakery on West Pico Boulevard. "They were unfamiliar here. But with petits fours, people are learning quickly." You can take the man out of France, but you can't take France out of the man. Bohbot, a real estate agent, went into the bakery business because he felt there was a dearth of French pastry in his neighborhood. He also saw an unfulfilled demand for upscale kosher baked goods. So he partnered with veteran baker Jacob Levy of the Eilat bakeries, who found a way to make kosher petits fours and other pastries using dairy substitutes. (Kosher dietary strictures prohibit the consumption of dairy products after meat.) I tasted a mini-Napoleon. Could've fooled me.

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