This Molten-ish Chocolate Cake Will Not Sabotage You

February  4, 2016

My most spectacular culinary failure was on the night of my brother's twenty-first birthday. I was seventeen and taking the year between high school and college to work in a muscular dystrophy research lab, which meant I spent more hours of my day with dystrophic mice than with people.

So yeah I was cool. I was really cool.

My brother, a fan of super-rich chocolate desserts and a vehement opponent of berries in any form, wanted individual molten chocolate cakes for his birthday dessert, to follow dinner attended by our nuclear family and several of his male twenty-something friends. So molten chocolate cakes he would have.

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I spent most of the weekend—I didn't even have my mice friends to keep me company—studying the recipe, undoubtedly from the Food Network.

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Top Comment:
“What a wonderfully respectful way of addressing this comment, Sarah. I really appreciate how you handled it. Actually, I didn't know this was Maeda Heatter's recipe either, but I love how you cited before and are happy to add in revisions. Bookmarked and will make soon :) ”
— moe B.

But when it came time to turn out the individual cakes, baked in a muffin tin and still warm, onto a wire rack, the levees—that is, the delicate top layers—broke. Molten chocolate poured out of the centers (no, it was not appetizing), and everyone ate my brother's friend's girlfriend's Jell-O cake instead (no, it was not appetizing either; yes, there is a reason I have never written, and will likely never write, about a Jell-O cake).

Except for my brother, who ate a bowl of the chocolatey goo due to either his big heart or his insatiable appetite for chocolate, and me (attribute that to my embarrassment and disappointment and tears).

Oh baby, oh baby. Photo by Julia Gartland

And so, my plea: Even if you aren't a vulnerable, lonely seventeen-year-old, even if you're going to be serving dessert to someone who loves you very dearly, don't let this happen to you. Why take the chance? On Valentine's Day, especially—and I'm not trying to scare you—so much can go wrong. Seek refuge in a reliable cake. Think of it as a team member, not a competitor. Make the cake work for your best interest, not against it.

There are plenty of ways to do molten chocolate cake—inarguably the perfect dessert for the gushiest, mushiest, can-barely-hold-itself together holiday of them all—without putting your pride on the line. You are not Jean-Georges: It is okay not to make jiggly, individually-sized cakes that explode if you look at them the wrong way.

This Valentine's Day, make your flourless chocolate cake in individual cups that don't have to be unmolded, or make an impressive, double-baked cake that has all the qualities of a molten cake but none of the risk.

For the latter, you make a standard batter from melted butter, chocolate, sugar, and eggs, then pour most of it into a springform pan and bake for 25 minutes. That right there is good enough to serve on its own, but the real hoorah comes when you then take the reserved batter, spread it over the top of the cake, and give the whole thing an additional 15 minutes in a higher temperature oven, until it's just barely baked.

The result is a firm, dense under layer—with the chewy, feels-like-food element that many flourless chocolate cakes lack—that acts as a crust-like container for the melting, pudding-like top. Nothing will break or burst or turn to goo or go terribly wrong. Success is (practically) guaranteed. And when you put it in the refrigerator, the bottom layer will become brownie-like, the top like mousse.

Chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, chocolate brownies, and chocolate mousse—all in one dessert?! Those are four very good reasons to celebrate Valentine's Day. And a sure way—at least on account of the cake—to make sure it doesn't end in tears.

Ever had a horrible experience with a molten chocolate cake? Air your grievances in the comments, please.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Francesca Bruzzese
    Francesca Bruzzese
  • garlichands
  • Riveribis
  • Shelley Matheis
    Shelley Matheis
  • Cindi Keller
    Cindi Keller
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Francesca B. January 17, 2017
This looks fantastic and a great alternative to the fussier individual cakes -- great post too!!
garlichands June 30, 2016
Ha. I was 17 for my sister's 21's birthday and the only dessert she liked was molten lava cake. SO, I too tested out recipes from the food network (lagasse? i think) and made it for everybody. Only mine went in the opposite direction. Overcooked. No molten. No lava. No ooze. I fought back tears as I stuffed bites down. :( MIND OVER MATTER
It's sad though, my sister still hasn't forgiven me. we don't talk much.
No. just kidding. I've since redeemed myself with Ina garten's baked brownie pudding and Molly Wizenberg's winning hearts and minds cake. They ALWAYS come out. Eager to try yours.
Riveribis February 14, 2016
Well, I made this today, and I was a little disappointed with mine. I always strictly follow the directions the first time I make something. Though the bottom was a dark, rich chocolate color and flavor, the topping did not turn out at the dark for some reason. Of course it's the same batter, but I suppose not cooking it as long the second bake made the difference? I used Ghiradelli bittersweet baking chocolate and Hershey's cocoa if that makes any difference in the rich color. Plus, the outer edges burned at 10 minutes with the second bake. When I cut into it after it cooled 10 minutes, the topping was way too runny. Ok, the bottom part tasted good other than the burned edges, but presentation with all the sloppy runnyness of the upper later, made it overall not so great.
Sarah J. February 14, 2016
So sorry to hear that, Riveribis! I'm wondering if there's any chance that either your oven temperature fluctuated between the first and second bake or the temperature was not accurate to begin with? I'm not sure why the topping would have been a different color—maybe something to do with the brands of chocolate you used and the refrigeration time?
Julie L. February 14, 2016
I have a separate thermometer in my oven to make sure the temperature is accurate so that wasn't the issue. I refrigerated the cake for 3 hours before the second bake. Well, anyway, we ate it again after the the final cake had been in the fridge a few hours, and it was delish! I'd definitely make this again!
Shelley M. February 9, 2016
Id love to try this recipe but I don't own any kind of mixer, so shy away from any recipes that require whipping egg whites
Cindi K. February 7, 2016
I live in a high altitude environment. What changes need to be made to this recipe please?
Jamie February 7, 2016
This method does result in a wonderful dessert. With that said this method was made popular years ago by the esteemed baker, Maeda Heatter. Inspiration from others is a key part of cooking and baking, but not providing credit when due, is shameful.
Sarah J. February 7, 2016
I am so grateful to Maida Heatter and was unaware this was her method, as I found it on the blog Dana Treat, where it was adapted from Food & Wine (I link to both sources in the headnote of the recipe). Thanks for telling me it was originally Maida's method!
Jamie February 7, 2016
Absolutely. And it wouldn't surprise me if Maeda sites her inspiration. Thank you for resurrecting this luscious recipe.
moe B. February 7, 2016
What a wonderfully respectful way of addressing this comment, Sarah. I really appreciate how you handled it. Actually, I didn't know this was Maeda Heatter's recipe either, but I love how you cited before and are happy to add in revisions.
Bookmarked and will make soon :)
Kristen M. February 5, 2016
A Valentine's without tears, hooray!
Sarah J. February 5, 2016
My 2016 New Year's resolution... ;)
LLStone February 5, 2016
I had a great, gooey, chocolate quinoa cake at a restaurant in Chicago - baked in a corn husk! While I doubt the corn husk was that important, I loved the texture of the quinoa in that cake. Have you ever added quinoa to an ooey, gooey chocolate cake? Do you think it could stand a little (how much?) for some texture? Thanks.
Sarah J. February 7, 2016
Wow, that sounds so cool. I might try starting with 1/4 cup of quinoa and going from there?
Nan R. February 4, 2016
I made one for my husband to take to an office function. It was overcooked and had a flavor that can only be described as "fishy".
Sarah J. February 4, 2016
Molten chocolate cakes are tricky! This one can't be overbaked. It's risk-free!
Milehighlori February 4, 2016
I agree...what's not to like??
Fredrik B. February 4, 2016
...I'm sorry, I can't wrap my head around it. How does any combination of cake and melted chocolate turn out unappetising, whether whole or not?
ktr February 4, 2016
That would have gotten eaten, no questions asked, in my house growing up. And in my house now. I'd probably have to fight my husband and son for it.
Suzanne T. February 4, 2016
I agree, it sounded heavenly to me... until I read the jell-o cake part and was then thoroughly confused. Her brother ate that cake out of love for chocolate gooey cake, not out of sympathy.
Sarah J. February 4, 2016
It wasn't that the original molten chocolate cakes didn't taste good—it's that I was planning to make individual cakes and instead got a mess of chocolate goo, with some more-cooked cake pieces stuck to the muffin tin and to the cooling rack. I didn't come away with anything presentable. This cake, on the other hand, doesn't have carry the risk or over- or under-baking. It doesn't have to be turned out or inverted and you KNOW it's going not to be accidentally cooked through to the center, either.