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Now reading The History of the Molten Chocolate Cake

The History of the Molten Chocolate Cake

We trace its journey from haute cuisine to Walmart.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #3: The Cooks and Chefs Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

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1966: The first known cake with a deliberately runny center is the Tunnel of Fudge Cake—the second-place winner of a Pillsbury bake-off in 1966. Invented by Texan housewife Ella Helfrich, the cake is a walnut-flecked Bundt cake with a wet fudge center, which Ella achieved by the pretty ingenious inclusion of powdered frosting. (The original recipe called for Pillsbury’s “Double Dutch Dry Frosting Mix,” which would, in the oven, cook into a runny, pudding-like “tunnel.”) The cake put Bundt pans—created in the ’50s, but never particularly popular—on the map, and proves what’s now nearly scientific fact: Nobody doesn’t love a cake with a runny center.

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1979: Fay and Allen’s Foodworks Emporium, in Manhattan, serves a Chocolate Soufflé Cake among its other fancy takeout items. The cake is baked by Mark Allen, who credits his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, with the recipe. Like the Tunnel-of-Fudge, Fay and Allen’s cake is a big, brownie-like Bundt with chocolate goo running through the middle. Unlike Tunnel-of-Fudge (and unlike most “flourless” cakes), the batter is truly flourless—“similar to a chocolate mousse,” writes Maida Heatter, who includes the recipe in her New Book of Great Desserts, published in 1982. The recipe also calls for long, slow baking at 300°F.

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1981: In this year Michel Bras patents his chocolate coulant. Bras’s coulant—French for “runny”—is the father of molten chocolate cakes as we’ve come to know them: individual, non-Bundt cakes, portioned for just one person. Bras’s version involves chilled ganache tucked inside cake batter and frozen overnight. The ganache melts in the oven while the cake bakes, resulting in a fully baked cake with a runny, liquid center. All through the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, Bras served variations on this cake—including a blue-cheese version and a caramel version—at his restaurant in Laguiole.

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1987: In New York, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef-owner of JoJo, invents the molten chocolate cake again. It happens by accident: He pulls a chocolate sponge cake (the recipe is his mother’s) out of the oven too early, tastes the cake, and discovers that it’s delicious even with an underdone center. He calls the cake a Chocolate Valrhona Cake, and serves it with vanilla ice cream.

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1990s: Gooey chocolate cakes migrate to other restaurants: Le Bernardin, Mondrian, March Restaurant, to name a few. (When Tom Colicchio puts a chocolate ganache cake on the menu at Mondrian, he credits Bras, with whom he worked in the summer of 1989.) At Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay serves a cake spiced with ancho chili that, like Bras’s, has ganache baked into the middle. On the west coast, Wolfgang Puck puts a chocolate surprise cake on the menu at Spago; Nancy Silverton serves a similar cake at Campanile in Los Angeles. And the Hot Chocolate Lava Cake, a cake that bears resemblance to Michel Bras’s coulant, appears on the menu at Chart House. The restaurant chain, owned by Landry’s, still serves the cake today: “A rich chocolate cake with molten center, made with Godiva® liqueur. Served warm, topped with chocolate sauce, Heath® bar crunch and vanilla ice cream.”

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1997: A recipe for “Individual Molten Chocolate Cakes” appears in Joy of Cooking for the first time. Joy of Cooking declares the cakes “worthy of an elegant dinner party.” Along these elegant lines, a recipe for molten chocolate cake appears in Food & Wine magazine, in a feature called “Simply elegant: quick recipes for stylish entertaining.” Also in 1997, Jacques Torres’s recipe for Chocolate Fondants appears in his book Dessert Circus. Torres recommends using “quality chocolate”—classy chocolate—such as Callebaut from Belgium.

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1997: Molten chocolate cakes make their way to menus at Disney World, the world’s most-visited entertainment resort. Though the parks draw a crowd, the cakes remain in the realm of the elegant and slightly upscale, served only at the park’s pricier themed resort restaurants. At the Flying Fish Café—inside BoardWalk, Disney World’s Coney Island-inspired resort—Chef John State serves a signature Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with Liquid Chocolate Center and Tarragon Crème Anglaise. The restaurant is reservation-only, and has a dress code that forbids tank tops, swimwear, hats for gentlemen, cut-offs, and torn clothing. Kona Cafe, a restaurant in the Polynesian Resort, serves “a hot lava cake with flowing chocolate river… as good as it sounds,” according to a reviewer in Tampa Bay magazine. The California Grill, meanwhile, a Los Angeles-themed restaurant located on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort, features a menu that offers sushi, California wine, and molten-chocolate cake.

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1999: When molten-chocolate cakes first appear in genre fiction, the terminology used to describe them—unsurprisingly—is that of romance. And not just any romance, but the illicit kind: the cakes are always “sinful” and “decadent.” In Joseph Finder’s High Crimes, in which star attorney Claire Heller Chapman learns that Tom Chapman is not the man he says he is, a molten chocolate cake is presented at dinner, undoubtedly a metaphor for something aberrant afoot.

“Can I tempt you with dessert?” asked the waiter. “The marquise au pistachio is fabulous. To die for. Or there’s a warm molten chocolate cake that’s really sinful.”

“I want chocolate cake!” said Annie.

Tom looked at Claire. She shook her head. “Nothing for me,” she said.

“Are you sure?” the waiter asked conspiratorially, wickedly.

In Gay G. Gunn’s Pride and Joi, the titular character (Joi) is torn between “passion or privilege”: a man who stimulates her mind or a financially-secure-but-boring guy. When the boring guy orders a straitlaced stone-fruit cobbler, she opts for decadence: “They shared a Caesar salad and mountains of crusty bread before settling on dessert: peach cobbler for him, and for her, chocolate decadence cake with white chocolate lava center and a spiral of whipped cream.”

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2000: Because these cakes tend to appear on the menus of pricier restaurants, and pricier restaurants tend to cater to couples, the romantic overtones begin to bleed over from the bodice-rippers. Death by Chocolate Cakes: An Astonishing Array of Chocolate Enchantments includes a recipe for something called “Chocolate Heart of Darkness,” which the authors describe as a “warm, molten chocolate cake… so sensual it could be the eighth deadly sin.” In ­Romantic Days and Nights in Los Angeles, a guide to romantic venues in LA, author Stephen Dolainski writes of dinner at one romantic venue, “for dessert there’s no choice: warm chocolate cake with molten center.” Meanwhile, restaurant reviewers nationwide describe the cakes as “ubiquitous” and “clichéd,” but—and there is always, invariably a but—irresistibly good. The public’s relationship with the cakes becomes a torrid love affair.

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2001: By 2001, the molten cake debuts at casual-dining restaurant chains. Chili’s introduces a Molten Chocolate Cake topped with vanilla ice cream (which is itself encased in magical, crunchy chocolate shell). The Chili’s version remains the chain’s best-selling dessert. (If consumed in its entirety, it will supply you with 1,030 caloric units of energy.) Almost simultaneously, the Triple Chocolate Meltdown appears on the menu at Applebee’s, a Molten Chocolate Lava Cake comes to California Pizza Kitchen, and Bennigan’s trademarks its Death by Chocolate.

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2002: The cake’s shift from high-end to casual also takes place at Disney World, where the pleasures of molten chocolate are no longer kept from the park’s cut-off-wearing populace. Bursting forth from prix-fixe meals at reservation-only resort restaurants, the cakes are now doled out on paper plates at Disney’s Epcot Center, sans tarragon crème Anglaise (and sans dress code). At the yearly Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, a Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with Baileys Irish Cream Ganache gives Epcot visitors a taste of “Irish” cuisine.

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2004: Frozen “chocolate lava cakes” go on sale at 1,400 Walmart Supercenters. The cakes, the first frozen molten-chocolate cake available, are manufactured by Saxby Foods, a Canadian dessert-manufacturing company. According to Saxby, these are not just any frozen cakes—they’re trickier to engineer than the average mass-market attempt. The cakes can’t be too tall, or they’ll over-bake; they can’t be too thin, lest the chocolate burst through. Saxby’s technique appears to be a descendent of Michel Bras’s: the cake is frozen with a liquid center and a “button” of ganache, which melts when microwaved. Walmart, anticipating the cakes’ popularity, orders 288,000 cakes for its first order. Frozen cakes are now available at Trader Joe’s, and Sara Lee and Pillsbury offer their own ice-cold options.

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2005: Betty Crocker releases Warm Delights, which are essentially single-serving bowls of cake mix. To enjoy a Warm Delight, simply add water, microwave, then top with the contents of the premade fudge packet. With Warm Delights, “You’re just three minutes away from heaven!” When Warm Delights are first released, Josh Resnik, Betty Crocker’s marketing manager, announces that “Betty Crocker Warm Delights is the perfect complement to those treasured little luxuries such as chick flicks, romance novels, or a long, hot bath. Just a minute in the microwave and you are on your way to the ultimate relaxation experience, without all the stress of putting it together.” Luxury and romance, needless to say, remain part of the cakes’ wide appeal.

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2009: In 2009, just when you thought that Warm Delights were the terminus point in the molten chocolate trickle-down, your mother forwards you a recipe for “5 minute chocolate mug cake.” This is a cake whose Jean-Georges-reminiscent contents are assembled, mixed in a mug, and then microwaved. The result is a single-serving chocolate cake with a slightly moist interior. The recipe ends, “Why is this the most dangerous cake recipe in the world? Because now we are only five minutes away from chocolate cake at any time of the day or night.” Then it instructs you to “send this to twenty of your chocolate-lovin’ friends.” It’s a challenge to pinpoint the provenance of the microwave mug cake: The recipe first appeared in inboxes around 2009, and since then it’s been all over the web, emailed far and posted wide.

This first appeared in Lucky Peach #3, The Cooks & Chefs Issue. Subscribe here for more delightful stories like this one!