Good things in small packages

Columbia News ServiceMarch 23, 2013 

Nicolas Chevrieux and a plate of petit fours.


— It’s a meal that could send even the most seasoned eater into a food coma: A creamy chocolate milkshake, served with a juicy sirloin burger and side of rich truffle fries, followed by a round of gooey mac ’n’ cheese with a thick cut of meatloaf and finished by a slice of caramelized pecan pie.

Yet this feast fits on a single 6-inch plate.

In the land of the super-size everything, food portions are going miniature. There are burgers smaller than cupcakes, spring rolls the size of cigarettes and crême brulée cooked in a teaspoon. The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” Chef Survey lists bite-size mini-desserts and bite-size hors d’oeuvres among its top trends for 2013.

Fast-food purveyors are following suit. The Taco Time chain offers an entire mini-meal: mini-taco, a mini-order of mexi-fries and a small drink, all for $3.79. In February, “Pizza Sliders” were added to the menu at Pizza Hut. And last summer convenience store chain 7-Eleven introduced mini-tacos to its hot food menu -- four for $1. The chain says the mini-taco is among its best-selling hot foods. The trend toward the tiny “takes it roots from the idea of tapas,” said Anita Olivarez Eisenhauer, a chef and associate professor in culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Over the last 10 years, Eisenhauer has seen a maxi rise of the mini as chefs adopt the Mediterranean diet and cuisine, which emphasizes shared plates and smaller portion sizes.

On the popular photo-sharing website Pinterest, pop-tarts, caramel apples and beef-fajitas -- all in finger food size -- are among the hundreds of petite food group photos and recipes. “The idea of smaller bites enables us to share our food; it invites community to our tables,“ which has become a stronger trend, said Eisenhauer.

To be sure, this trend isn’t entirely nouveau. Just ask the French, purveyors of the fashionable and gourmet. Patisserie Eric Kayser of Paris just opened on New York’s Upper East Side. Over a plate of petit fours its executive pastry chef, Nicolas Chevrieux, sat down to explain the French revolution from the grand to the petite.

In 19th century banquets, Chevrieux said, women were not permitted to eat the same cakes as the king or the men, so chefs made smaller versions for them. Eventually, these gateaus became so small that they were known as the petites tartes aux citrons et framboises of today. “Le plaisir de la gourmandise,” or the gourmet pleasures, are meant for snacking on during the day, replacing a little chocolate or a handful of chips, he said; dessert isn’t just for after dinner, he said.

Of course, mini may be in the eye of the eater. “Many of these ‘mini’ items are the size of regular portions up until the early 1980s when portion sizes increased dramatically,” explained Marion Nestle, a food author and professor in New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health. “A mini-bagel is what a bagel used to be. Ditto a mini-muffin.”

Ally Gallop, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, said mini-foods are both a diet friend and foe. If a person replaces a regular-sized cupcake with a mini, it’s a caloric win -- but not if five 100-calorie mini cupcakes are substituted for a single 500-calorie cupcake. Indeed, the multiplicity of mini-foods, one of its selling points, actually can lead people to eat more overall. “Variety does increase how much we’ll eat; we’re just kind of curious,” she said.

Whether aesthetics, variety or nutrition is the impetus toward the tiny, these small items are part of the forecasted 2013 $18.5 billion snack culture in America, according to a recent Mintel report. Snack sales declined during the recession of 2009 and 2010, but are on the rebound. The food service snack industry, where “mini-versions of items have been popular for a few years,” is expected to reach $22.9 billion by 2016.

But really, it’s about pleasure.

“When we have a plate of petits fours,” said Chevrieux, speaking in his native French and pointing to the tiny pistachio sponge cake made from almond flour and finished with raspberry cream and a meringue topped miniature lemon tart, “We know that we will please everyone.”

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