Easter has always played an important role in my family—though our celebration has less to do with religion, and more to do with spring arriving at long last. It’s an excuse to make all things pretty and pastel. Growing up, my mom would bake chewy sugar cookies and decorate them—a tradition I wrote about last year. But this year, I decided to make something equally as adorable and possibly even more tasty—bite-size petit fours, decorated like Easter eggs, of course. These little cakes are a bit time consuming, but the result is insanely delicious (and yeah, cute as buttons). Here’s what you need to know.
Petit fours have several components. These components can vary depending on your recipe, but the general idea is always the same. You’ve got two layers of cake sandwiching jam. You crumb coat the whole thing with a thin layer of frosting to make it hold together, which also makes it easier to cut. Then, they are glazed and, if you desire, decorated—because they’d be so dang cute!
Since cake is the foundation of a petit four, it’s so important that it be the right cake. Ok, ok, all cakes are pretty great, but petit four cakes have some specific requirements. First of all, the cake for a petit four needs to be very moist—if it’s too firm, it will be difficult to bite effectively. The cakes will crumble instead of being pillowy and soft. It’s also important for the cake to be relatively dense. This ensures the cakes sandwich well and slice cleanly. As a bonus, I’ve developed this recipe to create a cake with a relatively flat top—so no leveling is required (unless you’re trying to be super precise). I bake my cake in a 9-inch square pan.
The filling for petit fours can really be anything spreadable, though classically it’s a fruit filling (like jelly or jam). It’s best not to use preserves that have large chunks in them, as that can cause trouble during the slicing stage. That being said, you can definitely use other things in the center—like fruit curd—or you can go crazy, with ganache, dulce de leche, or Nutella! Just remember the filling should be firm enough to not ooze out the sides when you sandwich the cakes together or slice them.
When making petit fours, the frosting is basically utilitarian. You don’t need much, so I usually opt to make a simple American buttercream by hand (rather than in a mixer). This layer of frosting is just a crumb coat. It helps smooth the surface of the cake so that the glaze can be smooth. It also helps seal everything together and sets firm when you chill it, which makes slicing the petit fours easier.
The icing that’s used to glaze the petit fours is known as poured fondant. Don’t get turned off by that phrase—this is nothing like the “edible” sugar dough that commonly gets wrapped around wedding cakes. It’s a blend of powdered sugar, corn syrup, water, and flavoring that is cooked over a double boiler to pourable consistency. It’s ladled over the petit fours, glazing them fully—with a slightly thicker coat on the top and a barely-there coating on the sides. It sets to be firm enough that it doesn’t feel sticky on your fingers when you pick them up, but it’s not rock hard like, say, royal icing. This icing is super easy to make, but it can take a little trial-and-error to get it to that “just right” consistency. If it’s too warm, it will be too fluid and run quickly off the cakes, leaving the sides to appear almost unglazed, with only a thin layer of icing on the surface. If it’s not warm enough, the glaze will be too thick—it will glop down slowly, coating unevenly; te outside won’t set properly and be sticky. The ideal temperature is anywhere between 90-97°F. You can rewarm the mixture, over the same double boiler/pot of simmering water you used to prepare it, as many times as you need, but it’s best not to let the mixture heat above 100°F, especially repeatedly—this will cause it to become more matte-looking, instead of nice and shiny!
To assemble the petit fours, start by splitting the cake in half horizontally through the middle. I score the sides all the way around (it’s best to take your time here, as the best “look” for the finished petit fours is for them to have very even layers!), then I cut fully, rotating the cake while I cut to keep things even. (For more on cutting cakes into layers, check out this post!) Once the cakes are cut, remove the top half. Spread the jam into an even layer on the base cake. It shouldn’t be laid on too thick—that’s when oozing can happen (for reference, my recipe uses 1/2 cup). Frost the surface and sides of the cake with an even but thin layer of frosting, then chill the whole thing. I actually find it’s best to freeze the cakes—the colder they are, the more cleanly they will cut. Once they are cut, they will thaw very quickly—before you’re even done glazing them.
Petit fours can be cut into any shape. My usual preference is squares, because it produces the least amount of waste. To cut in squares, trim the ends away from the cake to produce nice, sharp edges. Cut the petit fours into 1-inch square pieces using a sharp (not serrated) knife. Sometimes I find it’s easier to cut them into 1-inch wide strips, then freeze again before cutting them into squares. However, it’s just as common to cut the petit fours into shapes—circles are the most common, and ovals make the most adorable Easter egg shapes! To use a cookie cutter, press it firmly into the cakes—but don’t be alarmed if your cutter isn’t as tall as your cake, just keep pushing firmly (if needed, you can push them out of the cutter by pushing from under the cake’s base). If the cake ever gets difficult to work with, try freezing it again. It should cut very cleanly when cold!
After you prepare your icing, you can tint it any color you like, or leave it white. (Check out my instructions for DIY all natural food colorings here!) To glaze the petit fours, arrange them on a wire rack on top of a parchment-lined baking sheet. Prepare your glaze as directed, and have a ladle at the ready. Ladle a hefty amount of icing over each petit four—it’s better to do more than you need, which ensures an even coating. The weight of the icing actually helps pull itself down the sides of the cake, coating it evenly—and helping you not miss any spots on the side (thanks, icing!). Don’t worry about all the excess pooling at the bases, just gently lift the parchment and scrape the icing back into the bowl, and use it again! Remember, if your glaze is too runny, that means it’s too hot—so let it cool for a bit at room temperature. If the glaze is too thick, warm it again and get right back to it. The glaze will firm up relatively quickly. Once it’s set, use a small offset spatula to lift the petit fours off of the rack and transfer to a serving platter. Note: You can split up the batch of icing, tint them different colors, and glaze accordingly, just remember to use separate cooling racks on their own parchment-lined baking sheets, so you can reuse the glaze as needed.
The petit fours are amazing just as is, but decorating is always fun! You can decorate using sprinkles or colored sugars before the glaze sets fully, or you can pipe leftover icing in designs (this is especially great with a contrasting color). As always, the sky is the limit! I used some different sprinkles to decorate my tiny Easter egg cakes, but if I’m being honest, I like them simply on their own just as much.
- 1 cup (227 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups (298 g) granulated sugar
- 3 large (170 g) eggs
- 2 1/4 cups (271 g) all purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 g) baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon (1 g) fine sea salt
- 3/4 cup (181 g) whole milk
- FILLING + FROSTING:
- 1/4 cup (57 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup (113 g) powdered sugar, sifted
- 1/2 teaspoon (3 g) vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon (60 g) heavy cream
- 1/2 cup (170 g) apricot jelly
- 8 cups (907 g) powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup (156 g) corn syrup
- 2/3 cup (161 g) water
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 g) vanilla extract
- a few drops of food coloring (store bought or homemade - optional)
- sprinkles or colored sugars, for finishing (optional)
What do you plan on baking this Easter? Let us know in the comments!