OVER a decade ago, I had a student, his name is QJ, a bright, hyperactive boy, whose energy rattled with such a buzz his teacher couldn’t quite handle, on occasion. He made a remark once, a random observation, during one of our book review classes — he must have been 11 or 12 — about how books by Western authors have more cachet than those written by local ones. The remark wasn’t exactly kind to our homegrown literary artists, but there was some truth to it. This kid had a keen sense of branding.
But branding is such a nebulous word, I only like it if it points me to a maestro and a master — a name I can trust, a name I can count on for lessons that would make me smarter and more proficient and ready to take on the world.
A Cake Born of a Mistake
As far as soft, warm, oozy chocolate cakes go, the name I count on is Jean-Georges Vongerichten — whose name always appears as Vong in my baking journal — not just because he’s a four-star chef, but because he’s the originator of the world-famous lava cake, discovered, by sheer chance, in one of his R&D kitchen attempts.
What was first born as an undercooked chocolate cake, “a mistake,” as he called it, turned out to be one of the most popular and copied desserts in the world, what a gift!
As Easy As It Looks. Really?
My first brush with this cake was not at a restaurant, but a masterclass presided by the great chef himself at the Singapore Tourism Board, two decades ago. The cake came across as a simple dessert anyone could pull off, yet there was something daunting, something wholly deceptive about it: Surely, it can’t be as easy as it looks!
There are only five steps to Chef Vong’s recipe, as featured in his 1998 publication, Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef, co-written with Mark Bittman, one of my favorite New York Times food writers.
Steps 1 to 4 are simple enough, but the fifth and final one is where a movie director would turn up the edgy music and go slo-mo with a steady zoom. Here, Chef Vong plays along with the music, like an accomplished actor. As soon as he inverts his brioche mold on the dessert platter, his face twitches with a little uncertainty and doubt. “Let it sit for about 10 seconds,” he mutters, and then gestures with a wave of his hand, “And let’s hope it won’t get stuck.”
He tips a corner of the mold now, slowly, doubtfully, like a lion tamer, anticipating the lion might just snap at his face in a surprise move. Then with one quick flourish, the mold comes off, and there it is, that lovely, gorgeous cake!
Easy, right? After many, many attempts myself, I agree! Only once have I had a stubborn cake which refused to unmold, forcing me to serve it like a soufflé, mold on a dish, and a spoon to dig in.
What Do You Call This Cake?
Go ahead, call it lava, it’s the right name, the popular name, the cool name, the trendy, oozy, familiar name that makes us all tremble with chocolate from head to toe. But chez moi, at my home, this cake is not lava. Call it anything else, except lava. I call it variously:
. moelleux au chocolat
. soft, warm chocolate cake
. molten chocolate cake
Let’s just say lava doesn’t work because Chef Vong doesn’t use that name. He calls his Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake. It also can’t be lava because I make my gateau in the same fluted brioche molds that Chef Vong does, not the more common straight-edged soufflé ramekins.
And if you’d like yet another lousy reason: I’ve added two little twists to my cake: one, I’ve made it gluten-free, and two, I can’t tell you more, I don’t wish for it to be a spoiler to those who haven’t yet tried my moelleux au chocolat.
If you don’t buy all the above reasons, could I offer you one last one, a really good one? Perhaps I’m just a sucker for branding, just like QJ, who’s now studying at UCLA. I think he would agree, he’s got good taste, just like his teacher.