Originally published February 7, 1999
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
“IF YOU WANT a good meal”, people said, “you have to stay home”. And it was true. The best cuisine was home cooking. The best ingredients were grown in the backyard or carefully selected from the markets. Restaurant kitchens have tried to emulate good home cooking, but have generally failed.
Now all that has changed. People are cooking less than they used to, and restaurant dishes have far surpassed most home-cooked meals in terms of quality ingredients and careful preparation. From now on, home cooks take over from restaurant chefs, hoping to glean the secrets of serving exceptional food.
In the good old days, the best recipes were passed down from grandmothers and cousins, and half a dozen good recipes could make a cook’s reputation. Today, domestic food magazines for housewives who want to cook the latest restaurant dishes are full of tips and recipes. We’re bombarded with so many new ideas, or old, improved ideas, that we’re tempted to try new dishes all the time, and struggle to find the time to go back to our old favorites.
It would be easy to dismiss all this innovation in the kitchen as hype. We could consider it a production of hyperactive foodies and stick to our roasts and apple pies, but something would be missing. The new food is really better. Better ingredients, better equipment and better training have made restaurant kitchens great places. In dining halls across America, ordinary people can now find meals that even the most privileged members of society would have struggled to find 100 years ago.
Home cooks can also produce better meals.
When I started working in restaurants, their kitchens were the only places where you could find high-quality bittersweet chocolate. I used to buy it at work and take it home to make exceptional versions of chocolate chip cookies and brownies. Now, specialty food stores and top grocery stores all carry bittersweet chocolate, most often with several varieties to choose from. But it doesn’t make sense to use that 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’ve found a way to incorporate high-quality bittersweet chocolate into a dessert that captures all of its charm. The chocolate stays soft and gooey, the cake holds together—barely—and it can be assembled ahead of time and stored in the fridge until ready to serve. Even better, when you serve a cake like this, people will say, “If you want a really good meal, stay home.”
chocolate lava cake
Makes 6 large servings or 12 small
Butter and sugar for ramekins
8 ounces of high quality bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces of butter
½ cup sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg whites
½ teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of vinegar
Whipped cream and fancy chocolate shapes (see instructions below) for topping
1. Brush the inside of 6 individual 8-ounce ramekins or 12 individual 4-ounce ramekins with butter and sprinkle with sugar. Shake off excess sugar and set aside.
2. In a large stainless steel mixing bowl set over barely simmering water, melt chocolate and butter. Add half the sugar, egg yolks and vanilla extract, and continue to stir until the mixture is very smooth; put aside.
3. Whisk egg whites with salt and vinegar until soft peaks form. Then, with the mixer running, pour in the remaining sugar and continue beating until the whites are stiff.
4. Stir half of the whites into the chocolate mixture to loosen it, then fold in the remaining whites.
5. Transfer the 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 chilled 8 oz cakes for 25 minutes and 4 oz cakes for 15 minutes, or until tops of cakes are crispy but center is still soft and jiggly . Let cool for 1 minute, then run a knife around the inside of the ramekin and invert each cake onto a serving platter.
7. Top with whipped cream and a fancy chocolate shape.
Fancy chocolate shapes
Makes about 12 3 inch swirls
6 ounces semi-bitter or semi-sweet chocolate
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or plastic wrap and set aside. In a stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate, but don’t let it get too hot to the touch. With a rubber spatula, transfer the melted chocolate to a self-sealing food storage bag and, with scissors, snip off a corner to create an impromptu piping bag. Press chocolate onto lined baking sheet, swirling or scribbling lines to create decorative shapes. Chill chocolate shapes until hard enough to peel away from paper, then stand upright in whipped cream to top chocolate desserts.