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Indulge in the elegance of French cuisine with mignardises, the delightful bite-sized desserts that elevate the art of fine dining. According to the National Confectioners Association, the demand for premium confectionery items, such as chocolate truffles—a popular type of mignardise—has seen a significant rise, reflecting consumers' growing preference for quality over quantity.
These miniature treats, often synonymous with petit fours, are not just a feast for the palate but also a visual spectacle. Research from the Culinary Institute of America suggests that the presentation of desserts can enhance the overall dining experience, making the meticulous design of mignardises a crucial aspect of their allure. While not a staple at every meal, these exquisite confections, ranging from mini tarts to spoon-sized pound cakes, are typically reserved for special occasions, adding a touch of sophistication to the conclusion of a gourmet experience.
A chef can display his or her talents when creating elaborate and refined mignardise pastries. These small sweets typically are served with coffee at the end of a meal. They are bite-size to make sure that they not to distract from the rest of the chef’s creations, but these sweet little bonuses also are served as a reminder of the chef’s skill.
All sorts of deserts can be mignardises, such as chocolates, cookies and cakes, as long as they are individual servings and can be eaten without utensils. Mini trifles served in shot glasses with espresso spoons would not be considered a mignardise, nor would a small slice of cake. Bite-size chocolates, such as chocolate truffles, chocolates decorated with nuts and dried berries and fruit dipped in chocolate would be considered mignardises. Confections such as delicate almond cookies, meringues or even flavored marshmallows also would be some common mignardises. A final category of mignardises are miniatures of regular-size cakes, such fruit tarts and pound cakes.
Mignardises are not part of a common three-course meal. In fact, they typically are available only on special occasions when guests would like to extend their dining experience as long as possible. In both France and the rest of the world, mignardises typically are not served except in the fanciest restaurants. More commonly, in place of mignardises, a piece of chocolate is left with the dining bill, sending a similar message from an establishment, thanking the guest and extending an invitation to come again.
In French, the word mignardise has a variety of definitions, but all mignardises are pleasing to the eye. The word also is used to describe a person who is a show-off, a decorative type of carnation flower and the brightly colored braided ribbon used to decorate military uniforms. The use of the word to describe an elegant little dessert combines the notions of decoration and showing off as well.
The Etymology of “Mignardise”
The word mignardise comes from the adjective “mignard,” which means “graceful, delicate, or cute,” and the suffix “-ise” which turns an adjective into a noun. Its earliest documented use in English dates to the 17th century. Giovanni Florio, an Italian linguist serving in the court of King James I, included the word in an English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s “Essayes” published in 1603. In its context, Florio was likely describing someone’s mannerisms or airs as quaint, artificial, or showy.
How did this curious word become associated with dessert? No one knows for certain. It’s not yet possible to trace its usage back to the exact moment when someone served a delicately crafted sweet and called it a mignardise. We do, however, know where many of these bite-sized confections came from.
Dating to the 18th century, petits fours originated in French bakeries before gas ovens were a thing. At that time, cooking and baking were done in large wood-fired brick ovens. As there were no temperature controls like we have today, one simply placed wood inside, ignited it, then waited until it was sufficiently hot.
Modern brick ovens can easily reach over 400° Celsius, far too hot to bake anything except bread or pizza. The same would have been true of brick ovens in 18th-century France. These ovens required a lot of time for both heating up and cooling down. Once bakers were done producing their bread for the day, they continued to use their ovens while they cooled down. At that point, they still held ideal amounts of heat for pastry baking. The bakers nicknamed this “petit four,” meaning “small oven,” because of the lower baking temperatures. Today’s petit fours come in several varieties:
- Glacé: tiny, decorated cakes with fondant, icing, or chocolate
- Salé: bite-sized savory appetizers
- Sec: dry cookies such as biscuits or macarons
- Frais: small sponge cakes, eclairs, or tartlets
- Deguises: fruit dipped in chocolate or cooked sugar
Other Bite-Sized Confections
When it comes to creating a mignardise collection, the possibilities are endless. If it can be made as a bite-sized sweet, it likely has a place in these sweet assortments. While people usually think of traditional glacé petit fours, other selections include truffles, mini choux, vol-au-vents, pralines, and bonbons. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it illustrates some of the possibilities out there.
Mini choux resemble tiny cabbages shape, but they’re puff pastries that you can fill with anything. Some typical fillings include pastry cream, cheese, jam, whipped cream, and lemon curd. In truth, you can fill mini choux with anything you like, so long as it has a similar consistency to cream.
Vol-au-vents are also puff pastries, but they’re constructed differently from choux. They’re hollowed-out pastries that hold sweet or savory fillings. The smaller versions you’d see in a bite-size assortment can almost resemble cookies filled with fruit, crème, chocolate ganache, or anything else that tempts your sweet tooth.
The word “praline” may conjure up images of decadent creamy, syrupy fudge-like confections with nuts. These versions are commonplace throughout the American South, but they’re only one take on this classic sweet treat. Pralines likely originated in France and consisted of whole almonds coated in caramelized sugar. The term may have come from the French word “pralin,” a powder made by grinding up these candied nuts.
French pralines stay true to the original form: candied almonds that almost resemble sheets of peanut brittle. The Belgian versions sport a chocolate outer shell with a soft filling made from caramelized hazelnuts or almonds. Some Belgian pralines have marzipan, salted caramel, chocolate cherry, crème liqueur, or even creamy coffee-flavored fillings.
When the French came to North America, they brought their pralines with them. Thanks to the availability of cane sugar and pecans, these tiny sweets underwent a transformation. In New Orleans, Black bakers and chefs swapped almonds for pecans and added cream to the recipe. Hence, the Southern pecan praline was born.
Lagniappe: A New Orleans Tradition
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ve probably heard of or even received a lagniappe. The word first came from the Spanish phrase “la ñapa,” which in turn originates with the Quecha word “yapay.” These all refer to a small gift, a little something extra given with a purchase or after a meal. The word made its way into Louisiana French. Getting a 13th donut with the purchase of a dozen is just one example of this practice. When dining in the Big Easy, you may receive a lagniappe such as a cookie or a petit four as a small “thank you.”