Molten Chocolate Cakes History & Recipe – The Story Behind a Beloved Dessert from Food Historian Gil Marks
Molten chocolate cake is a small, rich, moist cake that holds a hot runny, intensely chocolate-flavored center, which, when opened, oozes out. This treat is attributed to chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who revamped a French low-flour chocolate cake into one of America’s hottest desserts, both literally and figuratively. At Vongerichten’s Manhattan restaurants, the signature dessert was called “chocolate Valrhona cake,” named for the French brand of chocolate used in the cake. Elsewhere, it became known by more descriptive titles, including “individual warm chocolate cake,” “chocolate surprise cake,” “chocolate fondant pudding,” “melting chocolate cake,” “chocolate lava cake,” and especially “molten chocolate cake.”
Flourless chocolate cake -— also known by such extravagant names as chocolate decadence, chocolate delirium, chocolate indulgence, chocolate oblivion, chocolate truffle cake, and fondant au chocolat -— is a sort of baked custard akin to a cheesecake. Its contents are similar to chocolate mousse and chocolate pâté, but the batter is baked to set its structure. Flourless chocolate cakes rely on eggs and cocoa particles in the chocolate to provide structure in place of flour, bread crumbs, and ground nuts. Unlike the lighter chocolate soufflé cake, the eggs are not separated, which results in a rich, dark, relatively dense, smooth, and moist cake.
Baked flourless and nutless chocolate desserts date back in America to the mid-nineteenth century, such as the “Chocolate Pudding” in The Lady’s Receipt-Book by Eliza Leslie (Philadelphia, 1847): “CHOCOLATE PUDDING.–Have the best and strongest American chocolate or cocoa. Baker’s prepared cocoa will be found excellent for all chocolate purposes; better indeed than any thing else, as it is pure, and without any adulteration of animal fat, being also very strong, and communicating a high flavor…”
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as the term chocolate pudding came to denote a new soft, unbaked mixture thickened with cornstarch and cooked in a pan atop the stove, the popularity of the baked version waned. Then more than a century after The Lady’s Receipt-Book, flourless (or very low flour) chocolate cakes underwent a revival. In a 1959 issue of McCall’s magazine, Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec, director of a cooking school at Maxim’s restaurant in Paris and wife of a cousin of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, introduced America to “French Chocolate Cake,” a firm, creamy baked chocolate custard containing a pound of semisweet chocolate, five ounce of butter, 4 separated eggs, and a single tablespoon of flour. Earlier recipes for “French chocolate cake” in America, dating back to the nineteenth century, were chocolate butter cakes with a standard amount of flour. The September 7, 1969 issue of The New York Times published a “French Chocolate Cake” recipe very similar to Toulouse-Lautrec’s, also containing a single tablespoon of flour, but attributed to “Evelyn Sharpe,” and sparked new interest in this type of treat.
Then during the 1970s and 1980s, chocolate cakes without a hint of flour became the rage in the United States. Nearly every upscale restaurant in the country had a version on its menu and recipes were prominently featured in newspapers and cookbooks. Flourless chocolate cake came to the attention of the gluten intolerant, further increasing its popularity. Small undercooked versions with a liquid center, which widely supplanted flourless chocolate cake on restaurant menus beginning in 1987, became known as molten chocolate cakes and chocolate lava cakes.
Vongerichten, originally from the outskirts of Strasbourg, France, arrived in Boston in 1985 to launch his restaurant, Le Marquis de Lafayette. In the following year, he became executive chef of Lafayette in New York City and then opened a series of three- and four-star restaurants in the Big Apple. Two differing accounts of the origin of this cake have been ascribed to Vongerichten: one credits his mother for teaching him the dish, while the other claims it was the result of the chef accidentally removing a chocolate torte from the oven before it was completely done. Some sources contend these small warm chocolate cakes were actually created by other French chefs earlier in the 1980s. Nonetheless, it was certainly Vongerichten, beginning in 1987, who popularized them in America. During the 1990s, individual soft-centered warm chocolate cakes emerged as the most imitated dessert in American restaurants and, since they are actually easy to make at home, a standard in cookbooks. It is ideal restaurant fare (and for home dinner parties) as the batter can be prepared well ahead, then cooked on order just before serving the impressive individual portion.
There are five basic components to this dish: Chocolate, eggs, butter, sugar, and a small amount of flour. Some cooks variously add a hint of cinnamon, orange, ancho chili, or other flavorings. The eggs and sugar are first beaten together, then combined with the melted chocolate and butter, resulting in a denser texture. For a more ornate presentation, these rich treats are baked in small fluted brioche, baba, or Bundt molds. They puff up during cooking, then sink in the center. Because there is so little flour in the batter, the undercooked section in the center does not taste raw. The trick is not to overbake or you will have brownies rather than an oozing center; if underbaked, the cake will not properly unmold. An easier version also emerged by inserting a chocolate truffle in the center of a higher-flour batter.
Molten chocolate cakes are much lighter than a typical flourless chocolate cake. A relatively short time in the oven and underbaking means that the chocolate retains more volatile compounds, resulting in an incredibly flavorful treat. Use a good quality chocolate. The cakes are dusted with confectioners’ sugar and accompanied with a dollop of whipped cream or scoop of vanilla or coffee ice cream. For an elegant presentation, dust the serving plates with cocoa.
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Molten Chocolate Cakes (Individual Warm Chocolate Cakes)
- 6 oz semisweet chocolate
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter 1 stick
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
- Fresh berries for garnish optional
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Butter and flour 4 (6-ounce) ramekins or custard cups. Tap off any excess flour. Place the dishes on top of a baking sheet.In a large bowl or standing mixer, beat the eggs, egg yolk, sugar, and salt until thickened and pale.
- In the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water, add the chocolate and butter and melt, stirring occasionally, until smooth and well combined.
- Quickly and carefully fold the chocolate mixture and flour into the egg mixture until well combined.
- Divide the batter between the prepared molds. The cakes can be prepared ahead to this point, then stored in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours. Place at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the edges of the cakes are firm and the center jiggles just slightly. At this point, it can be somewhat difficult to tell if the cakes have been cooked long enough. I highly suggest testing one cake on its own before baking the rest in order to get the timing just right.
- Remove the cakes from the oven allow them to sit for 1 minute. Gently loosen the edges with a thin knife and invert onto a small plate. Be careful, as the molds will still be quite hot. The cakes should unmold on their own after a few minutes. Serve immediately. Top with a dusting of powdered sugar and garnish with fresh berries, if desired.