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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.
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.
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).
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.
- 1/2 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 7 large eggs, separated
- 1 1/3 cups sugar, separated
Ever had a horrible experience with a molten chocolate cake? Air your grievances in the comments, please.