impress and indulge: chocolate lava cakes

A few years ago, Ed’s parents Martha and Terry came to D.C. for a late summer visit. Ed and I decided to spend a night cooking for them. The menu came together pretty quickly: parmesan-crusted chicken, green beans with vinaigrette, Pimm’s cups, and for dessert, I said I’d think about what to make. Ed said I should make a chocolate lava cake. I said I’d think about it, but maybe brownies would be easier. He said I should make a chocolate lava cake. I hedged again and kind of dodged it. I love lava cake, but finding the secret to the solid outside-molten center seemed like too much of a science experiment, especially because this was the first time we were cooking for his parents. Ed didn’t waiver. It was the only time—before or since—that he’d been adamant that I cook a particular thing. You sort of have to know Ed to understand that “adamant” for him means politely asking a couple of times in a row. It wasn’t an order, it wasn’t a demand, it wasn’t even a whine, it was simply an idea put forth with enough conviction that I knew he meant it. I still stammered around, mumbling about how I wasn’t sure how to make one and I needed a trusted recipe. And then fate sealed the deal. I’d just checked out Nigella Lawson’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess from the library and right there on page 179 was her recipe for Molten Chocolate Babycakes. 

molten lava cake 01

The reason Ed held so firmly to the idea of a lava cake was that it’s his mom’s favorite dessert and he wanted to impress her. I wanted to impress her, too, but was content to do so with a safer choice (Rice Krispie Treats, anyone?). Ed had nothing but confidence in me, though, and seemed to think a lava cake was no big deal. Despite my initial protest, I had an inkling that success was within reach. Many years before, I’d made molten chocolate cakes for Christmas dessert. The recipe was a random one I’d ripped from a magazine and the results were delicious, but not quite perfect—not enough cake, too much lava. I didn’t think I’d have the same problem this time around. By the looks of the Nigella’s recipe, the balance would be ideal.

clockwise from top left: the batter will be like thick brownie batter; cake fresh from the oven after 10 minutes; the finished cake; just before the moment of truth

phases of the cake. top left: the batter will be like thick brownie batter. top right: cake fresh from the oven after 10 minutes. bottom left: just before the moment of truth. bottom right: finished cake.

Nigella’s recipe was unfussy and the headnote assured me it was easy. That didn’t stop me from doubting every step right down to the last one: inverting the hot cake on to a plate and slipping off the ramekin. I started to relax at the first sign of success: the cake popped out cleanly. Even better, the cake didn’t collapse on itself. And then, with my breath held, I put a fork into the cake and cut away part of the outer shell. With all the grace of Nigella herself, a slow tide of fudge slid from the center. I let out a silent sigh and plated up the remaining five cakes and topped them each with vanilla ice cream.  I returned to my tester cake and took a taste: dense, dark, and rich. The cake had a texture somewhere between a sponge cake and a brownie and the filling was smooth and thick. I’d eaten countless lava cakes in restaurants over the years and this one was right on par with the best of the best.

a beautiful mess

a beautiful mess

Was Martha impressed? Heck yes. There were exclamations of delight. Her fork wandered to other people’s lava pools (and was quickly batted away). She declared she’d pay more than $6 for it at a restaurant, which Ed tells me is one of the highest forms of Martha’s Midwestern praise. When Martha introduces me to her friends now, some three years after that dessert, she mentions these cakes in the first words of her introduction. I’m perfectly proud to accept the compliments, as these are awesome little showstoppers. So whether you’re looking to impress your significant other or your significant other’s mother (or both) this Valentine’s Day, look no further than this ridiculously indulgent lava cake.

chocolate molten lava cakes
adapted from How To Be A Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson
Serves 6

These cakes are designed for people who love dark chocolate and have never uttered the words, “this dessert is too rich.” The cakes demand whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (or both).

The unbaked cups of batter can be assembled hours ahead and kept in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake them. Note the baking time is two minutes longer for refrigerated batter.

Make sure your oven temperature is accurate, as there is no way other than the oven timer to tell when the cakes are done.


1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the ramekins
12 ounces (approx. 2 cups) bittersweet chocolate (60% or darker)
1/2 cup sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup all-purpose flour


1. Prepare the ramekins: butter the inside of 6 individual 6-ounce ramekins. Place 3 of the ramekins on a piece of doubled parchment paper. Trace the ramekins on the parchment and cut out the circles you traced. Press the parchment circles in the bottom of the buttered ramekins.

2. If you plan to bake the cakes immediately after making the batter, place a baking sheet in the oven and pre-heat the oven to 400°F.

3. Melt the chocolate: chop the chocolate (if not using chips) and place in a metal bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir the chocolate occasionally until melted and smooth. Let cool for 15 to 20 minutes.

4. Prepare the batter: using a hand-mixer or stand-mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs and salt, then the vanilla. (The mixture will appear very loose and separated). Add the flour and blend just until smooth. Add the melted chocolate and mix until smooth. Divide the batter evenly among the ramekins.

5. If not baking immediately, cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake. When ready to bake, follow the pre-heating instructions in Step 2 and the baking instructions in Step 7.

6. If baking immediately, quickly remove the warmed baking sheet from the oven and place the ramekins on it and put everything back in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes. Quickly invert each cake onto a serving plate and remove the ramekin. Peel off the piece of parchment if it is attached to the cake. Serve immediately with whipped cream or ice cream.

7. If baking after the batter has been refrigerated, pre-heat the oven as described in Step 2. Remove the plastic wrap from the ramekins. Quickly remove the warmed baking sheet from the oven and place the ramekins on it and put everything back in the oven. Bake for 12 minutes. Quickly invert each cake onto a serving plate and remove the ramekin. Peel off the piece of parchment if it is attached to the cake. Serve immediately with whipped cream or ice cream.


4 thoughts on “impress and indulge: chocolate lava cakes

  1. Pingback: 10 luxurious things to eat on new year’s eve | butter poached

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