She [Gilberte] nibbled her cake, sitting sideways on an X-shaped seat which stood at an awkward angle to the table. And if Mme Swann, having just seen one of her visitors out—her at-homes were usually on the same days as Gilbert’s tea parties—should look in quickly, sometimes in blue velvet, often in a dress of black satin covered in white lace, she would say in a tone of surprise, which suggested Gilberte might have had all those little cakes to eat without her mother knowing about it.
--In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 81
No wonder the narrator’s mother worried every time he went to the Swann’s. Those little cakes are too sweet, especially when paired with the chocolate cake on the same occasion. It would be easy to drink too much tea in an attempt to wash the sugar down.
The little cake is small—one bite and it is gone. It is not hard to conquer, one does not have to scale its battlements such as with the chocolate “architectural wonder” of a cake. However, even though the petit fours (the little cake recipe chosen) is easily consumed, it is also well-structured; in its own way, it is as secure as the magnificent chocolate cake. For, if the narrator envisions the chocolate cake as a castle, the petit four can surely be imagined as a fort. So then, how is one to break through its built-in defenses? Remember your childhood: Peel away the hard icing shell, enjoying its sweetness, and then lick the marzipan that has stuck on to that top layer of fondant. Through such a methodical un-layering, though, the remaining cake itself will seem bland, and the raspberry jam at the base more mellow than tangy. However, this remembered child-like approach brings victory through savored deconstruction. Another approach, with no seeming method at all, is to bite through the whole little cake at once, for a combination of flavors. However, what child remembers such a straight forward approach to appreciating treats?
Yet, even a straight forward memory is retrieved and renovated along pathways that bend. What is the narrator remembering? Did he, as a child, conquer those desserts or had they conquered him? Back then, and in the remembering, is he savoring a recollection of confection, or is he constructing, from crumbs of a past sweet, a consolation to be tasted and tested in the present as a battlement against those who would scale his walls? In the event remembered, is he hoping to conquer Gilberte by his consuming so much of the dessert? Or has she conquered him by making him sweet-sugar drunk on cake, and on her? Does Mme Swann’s mock surprise, at his eating cake with Gilberte, and her inviting him back for another occasion give him license to continue his attempt at conquest? It is possibly an overdrawn connection. However, to the extent that the narrator is intrigued by life at the Swann’s, those little cakes—the tiny layers, sugar casements with sweet, drizzled designs—seem to be miniature reflections of Mme. Swann’s dresses: “sometimes in blue velvet, often…black satin covered in white lace” (81). It is no wonder that he ate too much, trying to take them in, covering his nervousness.
Fondant Glazed Petit Fours
(Adapted from Gale Gand’s Food Network Show: Sweet Dreams)
4 egg whites
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
2 cups sifted cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2/3 milk, at room temperature
For the Fondant:
2/3 cup corn syrup
2/3 cup hot water
7 cups powdered sugar
6 drops lemon extract
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment which the egg whites until stiff but not dry. In a mixer fitted with a whip attachment cream the butter until smooth. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar and mix. Add the vanilla and almond extract and mix well.
Stir the flour 3 times with the baking powder (this is to lighten the cakes). Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix. Add the remaining flour and mix until smooth. Fold in the egg whites.
Pour the batter into a parchment lined jelly roll pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake until firm to the touch 20-25 minutes. Let cool in the pan then chill.
To make the fondant: Whisk the corn syrup into the hot water until dissolved, then whisk tin the powdered sugar until smooth. Stir in lemon extract. Divide into smaller bowls and color with food coloring, adding color until you achieve desired shade.
To make the petit fours, cut the cold cake into small squares, rectangles, and circles using small cookie cutters. Place the cakes on a wire rack over a pan to catch the drippings, inverting them in order to have the golden layers on the bottom. If the fondant has become stiff, just whisk until smooth again. If the fondant has not become too stiff, proceed to the next stop. Either dip the cakes into the fondant and place on the rack to drain or ladle the fondant over the cakes, making sure all sides area coated. Once they are set, they should be coated again. Let dry, then with melted chocolate or colored fondant, pipe thin decorative lines or use silver dragees.
Note about the recipe: there are many options of these darling little cakes. You can split the cake in half horizontally and spread it with jam, you can spread jam on the top and stick down a thin layer of rolled marzipan or do the simplest plain version like I did here. You can also tint the fondant different pastel colors.