Sunday, 31 July 2016

PETIT FOURS (THE VALUE IN EMBRACING IMPERFECTION)


It was a summer day. We were either finishing lunch at the kitchen table or sitting under the shady canopy on the back deck - the details don't really matter. I had just finished telling my Grandmother about something new I had tried baking, perhaps a new type of cake or some sort of pastry - again, the details don't matter.

"Have you ever tried petit fours, Amber?" she asked.

I hadn't. In fact, I had never even heard the term.

She explained that petit fours were at one time all the rage. She recalled a memory of serving them at my mother's bridal shower. They were so tiny. So sweet. So perfect, she remembered. The way she recounted the memory of the small squares of cake was so characteristic of my Grandmother. She always had such a deep appreciation for the "little things". Life's simple pleasures. Life's little treats. A sort of nostalgia, if you will.

The moment was so tranquil. It always was with her. My Grandmother had a peace about her that was always so calming. As I grew older and started realizing my own passions and interests, we would carry on conversation for hours on end about the pretty new plate set she acquired or the new recipe I was dying to try. We just seemed to understand each other so well. We shared a lot of the same interests and we shared in each other's excitement when the other had found, done, or explored those interests a little further. She was always my favourite person to call and tell about something exciting in my life, no matter how big or trivial. She just got it. 

"You should give them a try sometime, Amber. You don't see petit fours around very much any more, but they really are so sweet."

I always loved a good challenge when it came to baking. I envisioned myself hand-delivering a sweet little box of perfect petit fours tied with a bow to her front door when I had finally mastered the task - a gesture I knew she would more than appreciate. I instantly promised her that I would try making them someday before turning the conversation to a home decorating program we had recently watched or a piece of antique furniture she had in her guest room - again, the details don't matter. What I didn't realize at the time was that countless years and her own death would pass before I ever attempted the petit fours.


It was a friend who reminded me of the little treats just the other week - years after my Grandmother had first introduced me to the idea. I remembered that somewhere in the back of my mind I had vowed to attempt them someday. I had heard that they are no piece of cake to make (pun intended), so I scoured the web for advice, recipes, and step-by-step guides. To my surprise, many other bloggers have tried their hand at petit fours as well, most of which warning of their difficulty and the resulting frustration.

"Meh. Shouldn't be too hard." I muttered to myself.

So I began. I baked a sheet of deliciously dense cream cheese pound cake, filled the layers with strawberry jam, covered the top in a thin layer of strawberry buttercream, and took precautions to ensure the cake squares were as chilled and solid as could be. I combined various recipes I found to mix up a batch of poured fondant, prepared my cooling racks and baking sheets, and dove in head first.

And failed miserably.


Poured fondant? Yeah right. It was a mess. I tried everything I could - dipping, swiping, pouring, dumping. Nothing coated the little cake squares like a true petit four. My kitchen was a mess. My hands were covered in sticky sugar. My heart sank a little when I realized there was not much more I could do to recover my attempt. I thought of my Grandmother, almost thankful that my ego didn't force me to try making these earlier. These were not the tiny, sweet, little treasures she had spoken so fondly of. These were a disaster.

I stepped away feeling a little defeated. 


Perhaps a little dramatically, I couldn't even bring myself to eat one. Four dozen imperfectly hideous squares of cake stared at me from my kitchen counter all day long. Lumpy and un-even, I couldn't see it possible that their taste could redeem them from their disastrous appearance. I considered throwing them out, but the inner guilt for wasting six eggs and a pound of butter forced me to resist the suggestion. So there they sat on my kitchen counter. Through the morning. Through lunch. Through the afternoon. 

Until dinnertime rolled around.

"Oh yum, can I have one? These petit fours look delicious!" It was only due to my excessive babbling about my planned attempt for the three days previous that my husband was aware of such a thing as a petit four.

"You can if you want," I replied "but don't call them that. Those are not petit fours."

"They look like petit fours to me!" He took a big bite.

Thanks, dear, but until three days ago, you didn't even know what a petit four was. Ugh. He obviously sensed my frustration, so his extra kindness was appreciated.


"Oh my! Did you try one of these? They taste like a better version of a Tastykake!" he exclaimed through a big bite. (Disclaimer: my husband is partly American. I may have had to explain what a petit four is to him, but he had to explain what a Tastykake is to me). He ate one. Then two. Maybe even three - all while expressing how delicious they tasted.

I still refused to try one - I just couldn't get passed the failed attempt of what they should have been. But his encouragement gave me enough confidence to at least find someone to eat the treats, even if I couldn't bring myself to do it. My ego didn't want anyone to see them, but my inner guilt wanted at least somebody to save them from being wasted. I packed up a tin to take along to his baseball game that evening.

When I arrived at the game - tin in tow - my Mom was already settled in her spot next to the bleachers. She asked what I had brought along.

I gave her the look. She knew the look well. She had seen me through many perfectionist meltdowns over the years. "My very sad attempt at petit fours" I replied.

She burst into a laughter. "You sound exactly like your Grandmother!"


What? Like my Grandmother? She was the one who suggested I try making these stupid little cakes in the first place because of how perfect and beautiful they were meant to be.

My Mom recognized my confusion. "Grandma attempted petit fours one time too. It was the same thing - they proved to be very difficult and she was not happy with how they turned out." She continued to giggle.

For the first time all day, the thought of my failed petit fours made me smile. I had spent so much time dwelling on the failure of my attempt that I almost missed the joy of the whole experience. My Grandmother had suggested I attempt making these little treats because she knew I would experience so much enjoyment from trying, just like she had years before. She didn't tell me about how perfect they were because she expected perfection from me, but because she knew how much I, like her, would appreciate striving to create something so special. She had tried - and failed - too, but she obviously appreciated the process of just diving in and giving it a go, even if that meant that learning to embrace imperfection was the result. She just wanted me to appreciate the imperfection too. 


I envisioned myself hand-delivering a sweet little box of perfectly-imperfect petit fours tied with a bow to my Grandmother's front door - a gesture I knew she would still more than appreciate, whether they were perfect or not. 

In that moment, I could almost feel her smiling down at me.

I passed the tin around.

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