Petit fours are small decorated tea cakes that originated in France. Despite how the name sounds in English, these miniature desserts have nothing to do with the number four. In French, four means "oven."
Back in the days before gas or electric ovens, bakers used large brick or stone coal-fired ovens. These would get incredibly hot and could be used for a variety of cooking purposes. When the fire was the most intense it was referred to as a grand four or "big oven" and used to roast meats or bake loaves of French bread. As the fire would die out and the oven would begin to cool it was called a petit four or "small oven." This was the perfect opportunity to bake more delicate pastries and cookies at a lower temperature. Thus, the bite-sized treats we know today as petits fours were invented.
- For the Cake:
- 4 eggs (separated)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 2 cups ground blanched almonds
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- For the Fondant Icing:
- 9 cups sifted powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- Food coloring
- For the Decorations:
- Assorted decorations and sprinkles
Gather the ingredients. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Beat the egg yolks in a large mixer bowl until thick and lemon colored. Gradually add sugar and salt. Beat until batter is thick and forms ribbons when beaters are lifted.
Stir in vanilla and almond extracts. Set aside.
Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar in large mixer bowl until stiff but not dry.
Fold a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the reserved egg yolk mixture.
Gently fold in the remaining egg whites, the ground almonds, and the cornstarch.
Line a 9 x 13-inch pan with parchment paper and grease the paper. Pour the batter into the pan and tap once to remove air bubbles. Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched, 10 to 12 minutes.
Invert onto a wire rack covered with a kitchen towel. Remove the paper.
Invert onto a second wire rack and let stand uncovered until completely cool.
Prepare the fondant icing. Combine the powdered sugar, water, light corn syrup, vanilla extract, and almond extract in the top of a double boiler. Heat over boiling water until warm, around 110 F to 115 F.
Remove from heat and tint the icing with food coloring as desired. Keep warm over hot water and thin if necessary with hot water.
Cut cake into 1-inch squares.
Pierce bottom side of cake square with fork. Spoon icing over cake on fork, allowing excess to drip into icing pan. Place cake on wire rack covered with waxed paper. Let stand until icing is set, at least 15 minutes. Decorate as desired.
Serve individual petit fours inside small paper cups. They are perfect with an after dinner espresso.