Cranberry-Orange "Petits Cakes" with White Chocolate Buttercream Filling

If we were face to face right now, I would be on my knees. My hands would be clasped together in a plea. My grin would be so wide you’d barely be able to see the rest of my face. I would be asking you, beseeching you, to make these cakes. I have gone nuts over desserts before, and likely even on the pages of this blog, but never have I felt so emphatically about a recipe. At least, I don’t think I have.

I’m calling these petits cakes, though I know it’s a brutal Americanization/butchering of the French language, because they were intended to be petits fours, but rather than cut the cake into teensy tiny squares, I went with more substantial, full-size servings instead. It was really more for my own sanity, and to accommodate the normal-sized sugar cookie I wanted to adorn each cake with. They really are petits fours at heart.

 The cake, halved and brushed with white chocolate liqueur.

Speaking of little cake squares and hearts, petits fours will always hold a place in mine. My family often went to this one bakery not too far from my house – every birthday cake, Saturday morning cinnamon bun, and just-because-we’re-going-to-be-passing-by box of assorted treats came from this shop. And, although I loved their birthday cakes, my true allegiance as a child was to the vanilla petits fours. Beautiful little rectangles enrobed in smooth, rich white fondant and topped with piped buttercream flowers in assorted colors, they were likely the first proof of how easily I could knock back an alarming amount of even the most decadent treats. Whereas the richness would likely stop most people at just two or so of these petits fours, I could finish off a box like it was my job. Whenever they were in the house – and trust me, they didn’t last long – I’d be sure to get my share throughout the day. Yes, even starting with breakfast. Clearly, I was not always so focused on proper nutrition.

Now that I’m older, I certainly don’t eat petits fours for breakfast. I also haven’t been to that bakery in a long, long time, in fact eschewing most pastry shops for their inevitable use of shortening. I know, I know, how snotty (and stubborn) of me. This means that I also haven’t eaten a petit four in longer than I can remember, and yet it was almost by chance that I thought to make my own last week.

 The cake, halved and topped with buttercream and cranberry filling.

I was all set to just make decorated sugar cookies to bring to L’s dad’s Christmas Eve dinner, when I realized that C’s girlfriend (C being L’s brother), who happens to be downright awesome at decorating sugar cookies with royal icing, would also be contributing a plate of knock your socks off cookies. I know it’s not a competition, and that L’s family wouldn’t jeer at my still inferior decorating skills; it just started eating away at me and I got more and more uncomfortable with the idea of our two plates of cookies sitting side by side on the kitchen counter. All upset, I woke up Friday morning and frantically weighed my options. I didn’t want to give up the cookies because I’m still trying to practice my skills, and it seemed silly to totally abandon that opportunity for such practice just because I was intimidated; on the other hand, I really wanted to make something special, something that would stand out. When I came across a recipe for Petits Fours on Annie’s Eats, it struck me – I can have my cake and eat it, too! And by that I mean, I could still practice my decorating skills with sugar cookies without making them the focal point of my dessert – they would just be the garnish of the petits fours! It was perfect.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with Annie’s recipe, though. I wanted to incorporate this white chocolate liqueur I’ve been trying my best as a sorry excuse for a drinker to go through on my own; I also wanted a fruit filling that would be more seasonal than most berries are at this time of year. Cranberry came to mind, but how was I supposed to get cranberry jam? What about the cake flavor – would lemon still work, or should I change it? I wanted a pure white cake with a pure white sugar cookie – would the vibrant cranberry filling pop in a good way, or just look like my seemingly virginal cakes were bleeding a slow and painful death? I spent so many hours brainstorming the logistics of this cake, to the point where even though none of these recipes are my own creation, I feel a sense of pride in the finished product.

What I brought with me Saturday night to L’s dad’s house was a plate of thinly glazed orange cakes sandwiched around layers of thick, sweetened homemade cranberry sauce and white chocolate (liqueur) buttercream, each topped with their own haphazardly decorated (yet remarkably elegant) snowflake sugar cookies. Tomorrow’s post will go more into the sugar cookies themselves – an appropriate end to 2011, I think, with my resolution to perfect the art of sugar cookie decorating – but today I won’t hold out on you with the cakes themselves.

To warn you, they are ridiculously sweet and rich. L actually didn’t particularly like them – he’s not a big icing person, and even the thin layer of buttercream mixed with all of the other sweet components, particularly the fondant, was just too much for him. But everyone else raved, including myself, and I usually tend to hold back on my own desserts. You bite into one of these cakes and the soft cake just melts in your mouth, releasing a burst of orange encased in a sweet, slight crunch from the hardened fondant glaze. You chew for a moment, and your taste buds are greeted by the spiked white chocolate-sweetened cranberry combination, and pure sweet is replaced by an indulgent richness. This is a cake to be savored. Eat it slowly. Close your eyes after each bite. Swallow with a subtle pang of regret that you can’t keep experiencing those flavors over and over again. Or, go and sneak another serving and relive the moment all over again. This dessert is other-worldly, more than a show-stopper in both appearance and taste. I meant to write about this earlier in the week so that you could make this for New Year’s Eve, but even now that it’s more last minute I urge you to change your plans. And this is me, a diehard chocoholic, telling you to drop everything and make something that doesn’t have even half an ounce of real chocolate in it. That is not advice to be taken lightly, my friends.


Cranberry-Orange “Petits Cakes” with White Chocolate Buttercream1
Yield: 18 servings

The Ingredients – The Buttercream2
1 ½ ounces white chocolate3
½ cup butter, softened but not quite room temperature
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons white chocolate liqueur, plus more for brushing the cake

The Ingredients – The Cranberry Filling2
3 cups cranberries
⅓ cup sugar4
¾ cup water, divided
2 tablespoons cornstarch

The Ingredients – The Cake
6 eggs
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 ½ cups sugar, divided

1 teaspoon orange zest (from 2 oranges)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

The Ingredients – The Fondant
4 ½ cups powdered sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract

The Method
Begin with the buttercream: melt the white chocolate in a double boiler or a large glass bowl set over a sauce pan with a small amount of simmering water. Stir once in a while and keep the heat low to prevent burning. When it’s melted, remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar in gradually, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Pour in the liqueur and melted chocolate and continue beating to incorporate. Refrigerate in a covered container to store, bringing to room temperature (which should take just a few hours depending upon the temperature of the house) to ensure spreadability before using.

Next, make the cranberry filling: combine the cranberries, sugar, and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook while stirring frequently until the mixture starts to boil and the cranberries pop. Mash the cranberries down a little bit with the back of your spoon as you go. Remove from the heat. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together the remaining ¼ cup water and cornstarch and then stir into the hot cranberry mixture to thicken. Set aside to cool completely, at least an hour. For a completely smooth filling, puree in a food processor once cool.

Finally, move onto the cake itself: separate the eggs and allow both the whites and yolks to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed of a stand mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add in ½ cup sugar and increase the speed to high until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325° and lightly grease a 9x13” pan with cooking spray.5

Add the egg yolks to the stand mixer (you don’t need to worry about washing because you did the whites first), and beat on  high speed until thick and lemon-colored, approximately 5 minutes. Add in the orange zest, juice, water, and vanilla extract and lower the speed to medium just to combine the new ingredients. Gradually add in 1 cup of sugar before increasing the speed again to medium, and continue beating until the mixture thickens slightly and doubles in volume, approximately 5 minutes.

Mixing by hand, sprinkle ¼ cup of the flour at a time over the egg yolk mixture, folding until combined between each addition. Next, fold 1 cup of the beaten egg white mixture into the yolk mixture, and then gently fold the yolk mixture into the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and place in the oven for 27-30 minutes, or until the cake springs back lightly in the center upon being touched. Remove from the oven, run a knife or soft spatula around the edges, and invert immediately onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

Once the cake has cooled, slice it horizontally into two halves, as equal as possible.6 Brush each cut side with a generous amount of white chocolate liqueur. Spread a layer of the white chocolate buttercream on top of one of the cut sides, and top the buttercream with a thin layer of the cranberry filling. Place the other cake half (with just the liqueur on it) on top, cut side down, and even out as best you can. Using a serrated knife – running it under hot water can help – cut the cake into 18 equally-sized mini cakes; I cut it into thirds lengthwise, then crosswise halved it and cut each of those halves into thirds. If desired, slice a centimeter or so off of all of the edges for uniformity (I didn’t both doing this, but it does conveniently leave some pretty tasty cake scraps for you to munch on).

Finally, turn to the poured fondant: arrange the cakes at least an inch apart on cooling racks with wax paper underneath. Place the racks close to the stove top. Combine all of the fondant ingredients in a double boiler or large glass bowl over a pot of simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until lukewarm. Lower the heat to the lowest setting possible and return to the mixture from time to time to stir it. Armed with a knife in one hand and a ladle or spoon in the other, portion the thinned fondant mixture over the cakes, allowing it to spill over the sides (use the knife to smooth the fondant over the entire cake). You will waste a lot of fondant, so feel free to pull the maneuver that I did and swap out the used wax paper for a new sheet and recycling the fondant that has pooled on the new one. This is the trickiest, fussiest part of the whole cake, so just be patient.

Use any extra fondant to help adhere any garnishes or decorations. Set the cakes aside to cool and allow the fondant to set, then refrigerate as best you can (I just kept mine in less well heated parts of the house and in my trunk).

1Sources: the buttercream (The Pioneer Woman, adapted), the cranberry filling (All Day I Dream About Food) the cake and fondant (Annie’s Eats, adapted)
2If you’re pressed for time on the day that you plan to serve these cakes, both the buttercream and cranberry filling can be made up to a few days ahead of time. Refrigerate until ready to use, and leave a few hours the day of assembly for the buttercream to return to room temperature and soften up.
3Be wary of white chocolate if you’re the kind of person who pays attention to ingredients and the nutritional components of food. Many white chocolate chips are little more than chemicals and partially hydrogenated oils; I used a few squares of dove white chocolate, which is the real deal.
4I think that you could get away with decreasing this to 3-4 tablespoons. The rest of the dessert is so sweet that you really don’t need it, and leaving a little tart bite in the filling may actually make the cake even better.
5The bottom of my cake stuck to the pan – not horrendously, but it did stick, so feel free to be a little bit less judicious with your use of cooking spray. “Lightly” may not be enough in this case.

This recipe may look daunting, and it’s certainly time consuming, but it really isn’t too treacherous and can easily be split up over several days. Just leave at the very least the assembly for the final day. It really is fantastic – I’m actually all set to make the cake portion again to serve with a chocolate fondue on New Year’s Day!


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