There are not many desserts that get starring roles in hit Hollywood movies. The Molten Chocolate Cake is one of the happy exceptions. If you have seen the movie Chef (2014), then you will remember the confrontation between the chef-hero (played by Jon Favreau who also directed the picture) and a food critic.
The argument is about a molten chocolate cake that the critic does not like. Favreau, playing the chef, storms out of the kitchen and tells the critic that he does not even understand how the dessert is constructed. This confrontation puts the movie on the road because Favreau then leaves his fancy restaurant and starts a food truck.
Chef was an enormously successful film and was clearly a labour of love for Favreau (who was better known for directing such blockbusters as Iron Man) and became so much a part of his persona that he now hosts a TV food show called The Chef Show. I watched him and his collaborators make a molten chocolate cake on the show and it confirmed what I had thought when I saw the movie: he was probably too hard on the critic. (But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I?)
First of all, I assume everyone is familiar with the molten chocolate cake. It was a menu staple in America in the 1990s and then travelled around the world, even turning up on menus at chain restaurants like Chillis.
The dessert gets its popularity from its combination of textures. When it is served to you, it looks like a solid piece of chocolate cake (or a chocolate dessert of some kind). But when you dig your spoon into it, thick, rich liquid chocolate gushes out. So, is it a cake? Or is it just a vehicle for a rich chocolate sauce? Nobody can be certain. That’s the beauty of the dessert.
You have probably eaten it somewhere (these days you even get packaged molten chocolate cakes on the net), even if the dessert was described slightly differently, say, a chocolate lava cake or some fancy French name.
Chefs are generally agreed that the dessert only became popular in America after the well-known New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten launched it at his Restaurant Lafayette (now closed).
Jean-Georges says he invented it by accident. His story is that he was catering for a huge wedding and put small, warm chocolate cakes on the menu. As the cakes were being served, Jean Georges went down to his main Lafayette dining room to oversee the service. That’s when it all began to happen.
According to Jean-Georges: “About 20 minutes later, one of the waiters serving at the banquet ran down to see me. He had seen people cutting into their cakes and the egg-based cake batter running out into their plates. ‘Chef’, he said, ‘We have just served 500 chocolate cakes that are raw in the centre’.”
Jean-Georges knew what had gone wrong. “You put four small cakes in an oven, they bake properly. You put 500 cakes into all the oven space you have and the temperature drops. Those cakes were raw in the centre.”
But, says Jean-Georges, he was shocked to find that guests actually liked the mixture of cooked and partly cooked. He decided to brazen it out. “I addressed the crowd and talked about all the courses they’d had. When I got to the end, I mentioned “the molten chocolate cake”. When I described it, I received a standing ovation.”
The next day, he put it on the menu.
It is a great story and it is probably accurate because there were many witnesses. And while Jean-Georges was the first to serve it in New York, he does not claim to have invented it. He admits it was an accident.
But as the cake’s popularity spread all over the world, French chefs (Jean-Georges is French but his countrymen see him as a New York chef) began to get annoyed. The molten chocolate cake had been around for years, they said. The highly respected Michel Bras had been serving it at his restaurant for over a decade before Jean-Georges put it on the Lafayette menu.
Jean-Georges concedes that Bras had been serving a molten chocolate dessert before him but argues that Bras made his differently. Which is how the scene in Chef becomes relevant.
I asked Vinesh Johny, one of the country’s most respected teachers of patisserie, how he made the dessert in his kitchen. Johny said that there were two methods. The first was the Jean-Georges method, where you made a light chocolate batter (lighter then say, a brownie batter) and cooked it for a few minutes (say eight minutes or so) in a way that kept the centre raw or ‘molten’. But, Vinesh said, it depended on many factors, including the chef’s understanding of his oven and precise timing to make sure that the centre did not solidify.
But there was an easier way, he said. You could just use a chunk of chocolate ganache and place it at the centre of his cake before it went into the oven. The ganache would melt and would still be liquid when the cake was served.
Vinesh said that he preferred the first method because it depended on the skill of the chef. The ganache method was foolproof but more suited to mass production for banquets, he said.
Which took me back to Chef. It is the ganache method that the Favreau character uses and he berates the critic for not knowing that the liquid chocolate came from a melted chunk of ganache. But, in fact, the ganache method is not the standard recipe. And even though Jean Georges concedes that the Bras-ganache version was first, it is hardly the same dish.
In recent years, the molten cake has been finessed by the great Albert Adria who has taught chefs to freeze the ganache so that it can take higher oven temperatures. But the irony is that despite the pedigrees of Bras and Adria, this technique is used more by cheaper restaurants and mass production facilities than it is by many top pastry chefs.
In India, we got the molten chocolate cake pretty early on. It formed the basis of the La Piazza flourless chocolate cake, which gained popularity because of its melting centre of chocolate. The first time I had the flour-based dessert was in the mid-1990s at the old Longchamp at the Taj Mansingh where the Chef, Richard Neat, described it as a chocolate fondant.
Since then, it has turned up everywhere. But there’s the thing: nobody I spoke to uses the Bras method. It is the Jean-Georges version they make. Rohit Sangwan, one of India’s greatest pastry chefs, says that his favouite molten chocolate cake is the one at Delhi’s Orient Express, though, I think the restaurant would prefer to call it a soufflé. Chef Devender Bungla, the grand master of pastry chefs, reckons that the La Piazza version became the model and sticks to a Jean Georges-like method.
What did not surprise me was how many chefs served the dessert. At Sahil Mehta’s Paris My Love, he keeps his molten chocolate cakes in the freezer. When there is a catering or there is a business client to serve, the cakes come out. They can be quickly reheated in the oven and that molten centre returns to its liquid form.
Sangwan makes the point that what once started out as a fancy dessert served by Michelin-starred chefs has now become so common that easy recipes have been evolved which allow amateurs to make it at home in the microwave.
That, I guess, is the true test of the popularity of a dessert. Even if this one provokes filmic confrontations between critics and chefs!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, August 8, 2021
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