What Exactly is a “Petit Four”?

Well we all know it’s a small, roughly cubical cake, covered with a glaze of some kind. The name in French literally means “little oven”. As for where that name comes from, or what it refers to, nobody actually knows. “Little things you put in the oven” is one possibility, though it’s important to note here that petits fours aren’t baked as a bunch of little things. Rather they’re made by cutting up larger cakes into small, fussy mini-cakes (which aren’t baked again). Another is that petits fours were cakes that were traditionally baked in side ovens, or small pastry ovens to the side of the main ovens or preparation areas in court or manor kitchens. “Things you bake in the little oven”, in other words. That to me seems more probable, since starting in about the 1700’s, large kitchens often did have smaller, lower-heat ovens that were used for things like cakes and pastries. We’ll probably never know though. The petit four will simply and forever remain: the petit four.

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