Originally published Feb. 7, 1999
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
“IF YOU WANT a good meal,” people used to say, “you have to stay home.” And it was true. The best cooking was home cooking. The best ingredients were grown in the backyard or carefully selected from the markets. Restaurant kitchens tried to imitate good home-cooking, but they generally fell short.
Now all that has changed. People cook less than they used to, and restaurant fare has leapfrogged far ahead of most home-cooked meals in terms of quality ingredients and attentive preparation. Now, home cooks follow restaurant chefs, hoping to glean the secrets of serving exceptional victuals.
In the good old days, the best recipes were handed down from grandmothers and cousins, and a half-dozen great recipes could make a cook’s reputation. Now, national food magazines aimed at homemakers eager to cook the latest restaurant dishes are chock full of hints and recipes. We are bombarded with so many new ideas, or old ideas made better, that we’re tempted to try new dishes all the time, and we’re struggling to find time to go back to our old favorites.
It would be easy to dismiss all this innovation in the kitchen as a lot of hype. We could write it off as output from hyperactive foodies, and just stick to our pot roasts and apple pies, but we would be missing something. The new food really is better. Better ingredients, better equipment and better training have made restaurant kitchens into fantastic places. In dining rooms all over America, ordinary people can now find meals that even the most privileged members of society would have been hard-pressed to find 100 years ago.
Home cooks can produce better meals, too.
When I first started working in restaurants, their kitchens were the only places you could find high-quality bittersweet chocolate. I used to buy it from work and take it home to make exceptional versions of chocolate-chip cookies and brownies. Now, specialty food stores and better grocery stores all carry bittersweet chocolate, more often than not with several varieties to choose from. But it doesn’t make sense to use this stuff in our old formulas for chocolate cakes and cookies. The subtleties could easily be lost.
Like at least 100 other chefs in North America, I have found a way to incorporate high-quality bittersweet chocolate into a dessert that captures all its charm. The chocolate stays soft and gooey, the cake holds together — just barely — and it can be assembled in advance and held in the refrigerator until it’s almost serving time. Best of all, when you serve a cake like this, people will say, “If you want a really good meal, stay at home.”
Chocolate Lava Cake
Makes 6 large servings or 12 small ones
Butter and sugar for ramekins
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces butter
½ cup sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg whites
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vinegar
Whipped cream and Fancy Chocolate Shapes (see instructions below) for garnish
1. Brush the insides of 6 individual 8-ounce ramekins, or 12 individual 4-ounce ramekins, with butter, and sprinkle with sugar. Shake out excess sugar, and set aside.
2. In a large, stainless-steel mixing bowl set over barely simmering water, melt chocolate and butter. Stir in half the sugar, the egg yolks and vanilla extract, and continue stirring until mixture is very smooth; set aside.
3. Whip egg whites with salt and vinegar until they hold soft peaks. Then, with the mixer running, stream in the remaining sugar and continue beating until whites are firm.
4. Fold half the whites in the chocolate mixture to loosen it, then fold in the remaining whites.
5. Transfer batter to the prepared ramekins, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.
6. In a preheated 375-degree oven, bake 8-ounce chilled cakes for 25 minutes and 4-ounce cakes for 15 minutes, or until the tops of the cakes are crisp but the centers are still soft and jiggly. Allow to cool for 1 minute, then run a knife around the inside of the ramekin, and invert each cake onto a serving plate.
7. Garnish with whipped cream and a Fancy Chocolate Shape.
Fancy Chocolate Shapes
Makes about 12 3-inch whirls
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
Line a baking sheet with baker’s parchment or plastic wrap, and set aside. In a stainless-steel bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate, but do not allow it to become too hot to touch. With a rubber spatula, transfer the melted chocolate to a self-sealing food storage bag and, with scissors, snip off one corner to create an impromptu pastry bag. Squeeze the chocolate onto the lined baking sheet, swirling or squiggling the lines to make decorative shapes. Chill the chocolate shapes until they are hard enough to be peeled off the paper, then stand the shapes upright in whipped cream to garnish chocolate desserts.