Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lessons with Kristen II: Petit Fours

Petit Fours (© Jill Frutkin)
 Some of my loyal followers (is anyone still reading this blog? hello? hello?) may be under the entirely mistaken impression that I'm a baking master. After all, I make a lot of cake. And it looks pretty nice on this blog.

I'll admit it, I have some skills, including making things that taste fabulous, and other things that obey the laws of chemistry, but there's one area that I haven't come close to mastering. This area, arguably the most important in pastry, is aesthetics. I make bundt cakes. I make pies, and my three layer cakes aren't a complete disaster, but when it comes to inspired and masterful presentation, most of the baking population of the world leaves me in the dust. Marzipan flowers and shining ribbons? Fondant animals? Elegant composition? Cakes that resemble anything other than cake? This is another world altogether.

The truth is that I'm not that aesthetically gifted in any area of my life. Framed pictures would lean against the wall forever if I were left to my own devices when I move. I can dress myself, but am baffled by daily fashion. I never plate anything.

The upside to this general visual vagueness on my part, though, is that I'm quick to appreciate and admire the efforts of others, to marvel at their superpowers, and, at least in pastry, to be happy to learn from them with minimal ego, and go about squishing out buttercream roses and marzipan flowers with abandon.

Of my many aesthetically gifted friends, there are one or two who share my particular brand of dorkiness*, and some of the most beautiful cakes I've seen in the last few years have come from the hands of Kristen. Like me, Kristen is more or less self-taught, although she decorated cakes professionally for a few years. She's a talented and in-demand actress, but in the quieter parts of her schedule has managed to become an exceptional baker and decorator. (Really, buy her cakes.)  Kristen's work goes beyond rote skill--she's imaginative (my downfall as a baker), and visually inspired by a wide range of beautiful things.  Still, because she's a perfectionist, she isn't satisfied with what she knows, she wants to make her cakes better and better. After talking cake at parties for a few years, we decided it was time to take our combined talents into the kitchen. Modestly, she called it a skillshare (I teach texture and taste, she teaches making stuff pretty), but I think I'm getting the best of the deal. Watching Kristen bake is a revelation--her fingers and her mind move so quickly.
A lovely evening: Ladies Bake  (© Jill Frutkin)
Also she's beautiful and funny and interested in stupid chemistry and makes killer grilled cheese.
Our first meeting went straight to the basics--buttercream roses and yellow cake. For our second, Kristen suggested petit fours. For flower painting and other general prettifying, we brought in Jill, who loves to mess with things and get sticky.

The evening was a much-needed respite from a long week, with Chambord Royale, glittery dust everywhere, and much weepy watching of NBC as a friend's block became the epicenter of a citywide manhunt (no more on this for now, if there's one thing I learned from the news media this week, it's that there's no shame in waiting a goddamned minute to share how you feel and what you know (or don't) about a complex and painful event. I did not learn this by example). In the process, we made some quite lovely little cakes.

Traditional petit fours seem to be some sort of genoise, cut into small squares, sometimes filled with jam or soaked in syrup, and then covered in some kind of frosting--marzipan, fondant, poured fondant. Kristen was interested in trying poured fondant, made from sugar, corn syrup, and water. This kind of icing is easy to make but somewhat difficult to work with, as it hardens VERY fast. For the base, we used this almond cake from Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets.

I was rushed and a little scattered in making the cake, so it probably came out a bit more dense than it could have, with a few tunnels, but anything that is mostly almond paste will never be bad. The real work of decorating was concentrated in the marzipan flower making. Using marzipan, food coloring, and some nifty little flower-punchers, we made little flowers, and then Jill painstakingly painted each flower with gold dust and popped dragees in for the centers. I learned how to pronounce dragee
The layout.  (© Jill Frutkin)
The finished products were a little haphazard, as we'd all had a bit of cava by that point, but perfectly lovely, no thanks to me. But now I know more things, and I can't wait to see what our next project will be. Meanwhile, my mother was on an entirely different edible art quest--details to come. I'll just say that it involved Shackleton, celery, gummi penguins, and, of course, Jell-O.

I can't say I'll ever be a perfectionist, but I am lucky to share the world people who care passionately, and make good art.

*Can't stop baking.


Luke said...

Of course I still follow - with google reader going away, I might have to come up with a new plan. Either way, looks delish.

Noah said...

I had never heard of fondant before I saw it literally by the bucketful, which is a little disappointing if you're into making things yourself instead using a product that's used by every other single bakery within five hundred miles.... on the other hand, I recently looked in the joy of cooking and there's a recipe for fondant in there that sounds remarkably similar to what I've gotten used to working with. You just need to have enough of it, and heat it up just right, and possibly add a bit of water or simple sirup, and of course it helps if the Petit-Fours have been dunked in apricot marmalade beforehand though that's not completely necessary, and when you're done you end up with a glossy, shiny finish.

cosgrove said...

Reading too! -- Eve

Katya said...

Luke--I'm trying several reader alternatives, let me know if you find a good one.

Noah--isn't the Joy of Cooking amazing? Sometimes I marvel at the fact that I probably didn't need any other cookbook that I own. The marmalade is a good point--I watched Julia Child make petit fours last night and she said it's partly to make them stay moist longer also, but I'm sure it also tastes good. Let's make something fun together when you're in town--so much to learn!

Eve-thanks for still reading even when you hate the color scheme!

Lois B said...

I also had my first attempt at petit fours this week - a humbling experience. I love your little marzipan flowers!