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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Dessert miniatures transcend petit fours

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Frances Yoshinaga Pons' miniature desserts, called Sugar Rush, are as much a treat for the eye as they are for the palate.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Small but powerful. No messing around."

That's pastry caterer Frances Yoshinaga Pons' assessment of her line of miniature desserts, called Sugar Rush. It also serves as a description of the pastry chef herself.

Pons is a small, intense woman who has a way with words as well as fondant. Her sense of humor leaks out deliciously as she speaks, like the twice-cooked fruit toppings on her one-bite cheesecakes.

She greets a visitor in chef garb, but with a tinsel halo on her head and gauze wings on her back. She hands out packets of sugar as business cards. Her desserts have whimsical names — Guava Gabor (icing the color of Zsa Zsa Gabor's latest dye job) and Waimanalo Blues (blueberry tarts). "People think I'm crazy already," she says, "Silly names aren't going to hurt me."

Pons opened her "diminutive dessert" catering operation Dec. 1, working alone out of her church's basement kitchen in Makiki. She has almost more business than she can handle just by word of mouth. "Oh well," she says, "it's Christmas. Who needs sleep?"

She deals exclusively in platters of teeny pastries: 16 varieties of chocolate goodies, fruit tarts, petits fours, cheesecakes, puff pastries and such in various configurations that start at $14.30 (16 pieces) to $43 (48 pieces).

Pons launched her business just as the TV Food Network is reporting in a year-end trend piece that assorted baby desserts are taking the place of larger servings in high-end restaurants around the country. Although other caterers offer some small desserts, Pons believes she is the first here to make these a specialty.

People like them, the network reports, because they allow you to enjoy sweets, even multiple types of sweets, without overeating. Pastry chefs like them because there's less waste but ample opportunity to showcase the fussiest of pastry, cake and candymaking arts. The desserts don't need to be sliced; in their little paper pastry cups, they don't even need plates or cutlery.

For Pons, it started with a plate of petits fours presented to her on a Pan American Airways flight when she was a girl. There were no "classes" of travel then, and everyone was served on real plates with real cutlery. (Petit fours — pronounced petty fours — are dainty squares of iced cake.) "It was so beautiful. I just marveled at how anything so ridiculously small could be so delicious," she recalled.

Six years ago, Pons was a successful corporate executive in San Francisco, with a thriving cheesecake business on the side. But something was missing. After much prayer and meditation, the devout Christian quit her job to enroll in the California Culinary Academy, where she received a degree in baking and pastry arts in 1999, returning to Hawai'i the following year.

While working as a pastry chef for Ko'olau Golf Course, Pons spent two years fine-tuning recipes and techniques. Her line includes muffin-size cheesecakes, petits fours, two-bite tarts, a medicine cup of tiramisu, and her own creations, such as Abbondanza! (triple chocolate fudge espresso white chocolate cream cheese brownies, cut into triangles) and the ultra-difficult Snowy Mauna Kea (chocolate decadence pyramids with white chocolate snowcaps).

Many dessert recipes lend themselves to miniaturization, particularly cakes, which become petits fours, and pies, which become tarts. If you've got one or two specialties, you might try serving demi-desserts at a dinner party. Among Pons' tips:

• To make intensely flavored fruit glazes, combine jam with fruit puree or concentrate and additional sugar, then gently cook down.

• Silicone baking molds are a must; Pons uses the muffin shapes for cheesecakes and a pyramid-shaped candy mold for the chocolate decadence. Her trick to perfect unmolding is to cool the confections in the silicone pan, then freeze them in the pan for exactly an hour, no longer. "They just pop right out," she said.

• To make petits fours, bake cake in well-greased, shallow jelly roll pan. Pons uses an extra-heavy pound cake recipe. Cool, turn out and cut into squares or other shapes. Place cakes on a rack over a catch-pan. Pour thin icing over the cakes. Pons uses a tricky fondant. Home cooks can microwave store-bought frosting (which will melt, then set up again) or use purchased fondant paste to roll out and wrap around the cake.

• The only thing Pons doesn't make from scratch is pastry cups (making enough pate sucrŽ could be a full-time job). Home cooks can buy frozen tart cups. Or, roll out frozen prepared pie dough or puff pastry and cut to tart size.

• Serve baby desserts in their own paper cups — less mess on platter and guests' fingers.

Taste-testing the other day, I had to agree with Frances' summary: The desserts are, indeed, small but powerful, and unlike many beautiful pastries, these really yield the flavors they promise. They were as good to eat as to look at, a rare trait among fancy pastries.

To find out more, check www.sugarrush-byfrances.com or call 949-4948.