What Are The Little Cakes That Appear In HBO's Julia?

Though the HBO Max series "Julia" doesn't devote 100% of screen time to watching Sara Lancashire's Julia Child prepare food, there is plenty of delectable cooking to be seen in the series. In the first episode, Child prepares a buttery sole meunière, creates a perfect French omelet for her husband, Paul, and unveils a sleek, dark chocolate Queen of Sheba cake. 

Those close to Child knew full well that her food would be elegant and elevated in flavor, but some of the best moments in the series are when Child presents these dishes to people who have never before experienced her beloved French cuisine: the producers and staff of television station WGBH.

One such dish appears in episode 4, which opens in the Childs' Cambridge, Massachusetts kitchen, where the countertops are filled with appetizers and desserts that she's prepared for the opening of her husband's first art show. Arranged before her are dozens of tiny, square cakes in an array of pastel finishes. Child painstakingly adds thin lines of icing to the tops, then draws a toothpick through to create a marbled effect. She presents a small tray of the cakes to the staff at WBGH who ravenously descend upon them, as exasperated producer Russ Morash protests, "What is this, a tea party?" These intriguing, prettily decorated little cakes are known as petit fours (the name also given to the episode).

The history of French petit fours

Bite-sized, frosted, and delicately decorated cakes are what most often come to mind when thinking of petit fours, but according to the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, other desserts fall under this name as well. The term "Petit fours" comes from the French expression for "small oven," and harkens back to earlier centuries when extremely hot, coal-fired ovens were used. Once the coals burned out, the cooling oven was known as "petit four" and used to bake small, more delicate cakes and pastries.

The various desserts include petit fours sec, cookies that are like palmiers; petit fours deguises, which are chocolate-dipped fruits like dried apricots; petit fours frais, which are pastries like mini eclairs; and petit fours glaces, little cakes that are made with layers of cake and fillings and then coated with chocolate or fondant. Once set, the cakes are decorated with icing and delicate garnishes.

Julia Child showed "The French Chef" audience how to make petit fours in season 6 of the show, per The Roku Channel. Hher recipe also appears in "The French Chef Cookbook." Though Child preferred hand-kneaded fondant and génoise cake, Sally's Baking Addiction shares that pound cake can be used. Store-bought fondant works for coating the cakes, as does melted white chocolate and simple icings. Wisely, Child advised her viewers to have "lots and lots and lots of tea parties" so they could get plenty of practice to perfect their petit fours.