Whence the Lava Cake?

It’s hard to track the precise evolution of the molten chocolate, or “fallen” chocolate, or chocolate “lava” cake. I first tasted one probably seven or eight years ago at one of the wife’s favorite New York dining spots, Verbena in Grammercy Park. Then it was a molten chocolate savarin cake, which is to say, made in a doughnut shape, served with a scoop of ice cream in the middle. I remember being amazed by it, and was determined to find out how it was done.

I’d seen other types of runny-in-the-center chocolate desserts. Most of them types of custard or panna cotta, into which a little frozen cube of chocolate sauce was inserted before the dessert was allowed to set. By the time the custard firmed, the chocolate was melted. The thing could then be up-ended onto a plate, where the first cut from a fork would send the chocolate oozing out everywhere. Nifty little pastry slight of hand.

But that savarin mold, that had me confused. It was as if the pastry chef was saying to me What do you think I used? An inner tube-shaped ice cube? Ha! WRONG you stupid ignoramus! Yet after a little asking around, it turned out the answer was far simpler than I ever suspected. Molten chocolate cake is a very close cousin to the flourless chocolate cake. Which is to say it’s a custard, made of almost all chocolate, butter and eggs. I say almost because most molten cakes have at least a little flour in them for body.

The critical difference is the temperature they’re baked at. Where the flourless is slowly solidified, gently brought up to temperature in a water bath in a low oven, the molten chocolate is blasted in a 450+ inferno. The blazing heat cooks the exterior of the cake in a flash, leaving the interior uncooked and runny. What makes it so unexpected is that it’s the embodiment of everything you’re always told not to do when applying heat to food. That is, crank it up so high that the outside of the food burns before the inside has a chance to cook. No wonder I never figured it out. It was too dang obvious.

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