Ever since the days when I cooked by plastic-housewife proxy in the kitchen of my well-loved ranch-style dollhouse, I’ve been fascinated with tiny food. Seriously, what’s cuter than a lattice-topped cherry pie “baked” into a bottle-cap tin?
But eventually the thrill of fake small food wore thin, and I hungered for the real thing. For years, my favorite story was “The Day the Dolls Came Alive,” by Josephine Scribner Gates, in which a little girl’s wish to see her playthings participate in daily activities is granted overnight. The best part is what happens in the dollhouse kitchen the next morning — the mother doll picks up the wee phone to order small groceries, and when they’re delivered, proceeds to fix an actual meal of penny-sized pancakes. Even at age 8, I was nearly overwhelmed by the cuteness of the scene at every reading.
But it wasn’t until I went to Japan that I saw my own wish fulfilled. In Kyoto as a college exchange student in 1998, I saw a tiny shop front on a bustling street that seemed to be selling dollhouse food: miniature portions of shabu-shabu, sukiyaki and — yes — sushi, all at fractions of their normal size. Intrigued, I investigated and found out this was no art display: It was an actual restaurant specializing in the cult-food fad of miniature edibles. Small as it was, the food clearly offered creative and aesthetic nourishment.
The Japanese mini-meal was out of the reach of an exchange-student budget, but a line of customers stretched out the door, each willing to fork over ¥7000 (then about $70) to watch a chef manipulate teeny pans, whisks and chopsticks, and produce a quarter-cup snack meant more for admiration than consumption.
There’s also a healthy side to eating small, of course. In the “art de vivre” bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat, Veuve Clicquot CEO Mireille Guiliano says one vital way to get pleasure from your provender is to eat pint-sized portions, and savor every bite. I’ve always played with my food, and fussy kitchen prep work relaxes me, so I decided to try my hand at my own minimized munchies. When a package of French-style petits toasts (small, dry, fine-crumbed bread slices, similar to crackers) inspired the invention of a miniature appetizer, I got cooking. The result? A bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich smaller than a single piece of sushi.
These mini-BLTs are complicated enough to trigger surprise and smiles, yet simple enough for a home chef to make pretty easily. Potential variations on the recipe abound, if you’re the type to find fun in cutesy culinary experiments. Make a very tiny Western omelet, mirepoix-chopped chicken salad, or other fine-textured filling and place it between the toasts. Or butter the outsides of small sandwiches featuring your favorite fromage, and load a frying pan with up to 15 of them simultaneously for à la minute grilled cheese (serve with a shot glass of tomato juice). Dunk the toasts in a cinnamon-flavored egg-and-milk mixture before grilling, and serve very small French toast at a doll’s breakfast tea party. Or soak the bite-sized breads in espresso and marsala, then cut off the crusts and layer them with custard, cream and cocoa to make a tiny tiramisù!
Try to keep all the ingredients proportionately sized, to maintain the illusion of the edibles as diminutive copies of the regular-dimensioned dishes that inspired them, and you’ll soon see — and taste — the charm of the small. Bon appétit!