Almost anything that reaches massive popularity eventually encounters a backlash – it’s too common, it’s too cliche, it’s just not cool anymore.
Case in point: Chocolate lava cake.
Mention this ubiquitous dessert, whose heyday was the ’80s and ’90s but is still going strong, and plenty of people will roll their eyes. Perhaps it jumped the shark long before it started showing up on chain restaurant menus or as middle school chorus fundraisers, as I seem to recall. But perhaps I don’t care! Perhaps it’s popular for a reason, or even many reasons!
I’m not ashamed to say I enjoy a personal chocolate cake that comes with a built-in sauce, that can be whipped up and on the table in less than an hour. And made with pantry staples. And is ideal for a special date night at home (this is a rich, once-in-a-while treat, though feel free stretch each cake to 2 servings if you happen to have four people around to eat them!).
In a piece on Thrillist by Khushbu Shah, who is now the restaurant editor at Food & Wine, she traces how chocolate lava cake seems to have evolved in two slightly different variations. One is by French chef Michel Bras that included a frozen center of ganache that melts during baking and another by Jean-Georges Vongerichten that is undercooked in the center to create the flowing sauce.
The former is the kind made infamous in the 2014 movie “Chef,” in which a restaurant critic, portrayed by Oliver Platt, pans the dessert, prompting the chef, played by Jon Favreau, to vehemently defend his version with the frozen ganache, culminating in the line: “It’s f—ing molten!” Indeed it is, and having tried a recipe that Favreau and chef Roy Choi, an adviser on the movie, demonstrated in a video over on the Binging With Babish website, I can say it is a thing of beauty! In the end, though, I went with the Vongerichten recipe, because it doesn’t require you to make a separate ganache and was just as satisfying.
If you can melt chocolate and use a hand mixer, you can make this impressive but shockingly easy dessert. One of the biggest potential sticking points, literally, is getting the cakes out of the ramekins or molds. Be sure you liberally grease with butter and then dust with cocoa powder (natural will lend a lighter, more reddish hue to the outside of the cake, while Dutch process will create a dramatically darker exterior). You do not want to see a single speck of uncoated ceramic, so if you end up with a spotty coating, don’t be afraid to clean it out and start again. It’s that important.
Given the speed at which these cook and the variability in ovens, it’s especially important to stay nearby and pay attention. The outer edge of the cakes should have a bit of spring, though the middle will look slightly wobbly and dipped in the center. A minute or so after removing from the oven, quickly and confidently turn them out, and prepare to wow yourself and your dining companion. Every insult you’ve heard about chocolate lava cake will instantly, well, melt away.
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Chocolate Lava Cakes for Two
Active time: 25 minutes | Total time: 40 minutes
2 servings (makes two 4-ounce cakes)
Here’s a made-for-two version of the restaurant date-night classic made famous by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, featuring a molten chocolate center surrounded by a tender cake. We know plenty of people roll their eyes at what they see is a cliche, but there’s a good reason this dessert is so popular.
Serve with a dollop of softly whipped cream and berries or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
This recipe doubles easily. See below for variations on how to customize it.
Make Ahead: Store the ramekins with the unbaked batter in the refrigerator for several hours. Bring back to room temperature before baking.
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/57 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus more for greasing the molds
Cocoa powder, for dusting (natural or Dutch process)
2 ounces (57 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat 450 degrees.
Generously butter and dust two 4-ounce molds, custard cups or ramekins with cocoa powder, tapping out the excess.
Combine the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan with a few inches of simmering water, ensuring the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water, and stir until the chocolate is almost completely melted. (Alternately, you may heat them together in a microwave, starting with 1 minute on HIGH, then stirring, and finishing in short bursts on 50% power as needed until almost melted. Stir together until thoroughly combined.) Remove the bowl from the pan.
While the chocolate and butter are melting, in a medium bowl, using a whisk or handheld mixer on medium-high, beat together the egg, yolk and sugar until light, thick and pale yellow.
Finish stirring together the chocolate and butter; it should be quite warm. Gradually whisk the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, then quickly beat in the flour by hand, just until combined.
Divide the batter between the molds. (At this point you can refrigerate the desserts for up to several hours. Bring them back to room temperature before baking.)
Transfer the molds to a baking sheet to make them easy to move in and out of the oven (and contain any possible overflow). Bake for 8 to 10 minutes – the longer you bake, the less “sauce” there will be. The center will still be quite soft and slightly dipped, but the sides will be set. Let rest for about a minute.
Place an overturned plate on top of the mold and, holding onto the mold in one hand with a potholder, mitt or dish towel, invert the plate and the mold. (If you have a lightweight pot rest or trivet, you can set the ramekin on top of that and use it to help you invert as well.) Let sit for about 10 seconds. Unmold by lifting up one side of the mold; the cake will fall out onto the plate. It’s OK if you have to tap or gently shake the ramekin to nudge it out. Serve immediately.
VARIATIONS: Add up to 1 tablespoon of your favorite liqueur, whisked in after the chocolate and egg mixtures have been combined. For an orange-flavored cake, rub the zest of 1 orange into the sugar before combining with the eggs. To make this recipe gluten-free, you may substitute a gluten-free flour blend.
If you are concerned about undercooked batter, you may use pasteurized eggs. Or you may choose to add ganache and fully cook the dessert. To make the ganache, in a small saucepan over medium heat, add 1/4 cup cream and bring to a simmer. In a small bowl, add 2 ounces of chocolate. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and stir until smooth. Place ganache in the freezer until firm, 30 to 45 minutes. Fill the ramekin halfway with batter, add 1 tablespoon of the ganache and then cover with the rest of the batter. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
Nutrition | Calories: 470; Total Fat: 40 g; Saturated Fat: 24 g; Cholesterol: 245 mg; Sodium: 40 mg; Carbohydrates: 28 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 19 g; Protein: 7 g.
Adapted from “Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef,” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman (Broadway Books, 1998, as posted on leitesculinaria.com).