Summer is here, the strawberry season is in full swing, and because I am into seasonal eating like that, and believe that now, at the peak of their garden ripeness, is the best and the only time to eat strawberries, I try to make the most of them, using them nearly daily in this or that form for the three weeks that I get them. Just the other day I remembered that back in the Old Country I heard of a concept of “strawberries in sour cream.” I didn’t know at all how sweet or tart that dish was traditionally, what consistency it was, or even the context in which to serve it, but this simple (and brilliant, in my opinion) combination produced a vision in my head – I was going to macerate the strawberries, fold them gently into sour cream (or the other way around), and serve them alongside molten lava cakes a recipe for which I had been trying to develop for a few days.
Not that there aren’t many lava cakes recipes out there already, but, after a half-dozen batches, I was left unsatisfied – the cakes usually came out too dry and not nearly tasty enough for my standards. After some experimentation with both bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate, it became clear to me that baking chocolate was going to be the first thing to go.
In general, I have several reservations about using baking chocolate at all. For one, it’s not cost-effective. If I spend from $3.50 to $7 for a bar of Ghirardelli or Dagoba baking chocolate, I am likely to use the entire bar in one, or, at best, two recipes (I don’t use Nestle or Hershey’s since both taste too supermarket-shelf cheap to me). If I buy a $9 can of high-quality alkaline-treated (basically, Dutch-process) fair-trade cocoa, however, I will be able to use it for as many as 8-10 recipes, because you hardly need more than 2-4 T per recipe (8 at the most). My favorite brand is Equal Exchange (I love their coffee, too) – something about its flavor makes baked goods simply irresistible.
Aside from the obvious cost-benefit advantage and the incredible flavor improvement, cocoa also makes for a better, in my opinion, texture, with things coming out quite a bit more tender than if I had used chocolate, and allowing me to replace the cocoa butter, that would normally be found in chocolate, with the wonderful Organic Valley butter, which enhances the taste considerably. Also, using cocoa takes the fine sugar found in commercial semisweet and bittersweet baking chocolates out of the equation, which again contributes to the overall smoothness of the finished product. This substitution made an especially dramatic difference in lava cakes – the molten center was smoother than I ever remember it being, and the butter made the firmer parts more delicate and the center more creamy. All in all, it gave me the desirable combination of satisfyingly-gooey and adequately-moist.
Now to sugar – I tried it with both powder and granulated sugar, and granulated, without a doubt, melted much smoother and didn’t have any of the off-putting sandiness that powder sugar can sometimes impart. The temperature matters, too. 400 and 425 degrees called for in some of the recipes proved to be too low, with the cakes failing to set properly in a reasonable amount of time, while 475 was just perfect. So is the amount of flour important – 6 T was just right for a batch of four cakes. Finally, I have not seen a recipe calling for vanilla extract anywhere, but I felt like the cakes really needed it. Lastly, I upped the usually given amount of butter by 50% to make up for the cocoa butter that wouldn’t be there because of my using cocoa powder. 50% more butter made it just right. The only part that all recipes I looked at seemed to agree upon was a combination of 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, so that is what I used.
The vessel mattered too – muffin tins proved to be too small, with the cakes overcooking much too fast and drying out unnecessarily, and 1-cup ramekins were shaped all wrong, giving me the cakes that all too-closely resembled hockey pucks. In the end I found that I pretty much needed proper custard cups, which came in perfect size and shape.
Although not called for in any recipe, I added a dusting of cocoa powder, which also made it look fancier on a plate. I also added the mixture of strawberries and sour cream above – tangy, yet sweet and bright, it gave the more traditional accompaniments of ice-cream, whipped cream, or a custard sauce a run for their money (and it goes without saying that I wouldn’t even dream to serve them “naked,” with nothing but a couple of skimpy raspberries – the practice as appalling to me as those puritanical cakes that use a dusting of powder sugar instead of the proper dairy-based frosting).
As to the actual recipe, I love the overall simplicity of this – no whipping or beating or melting of chocolate – the obstacle, that, for me, has prevented the fruition of many a splendid baking plans. I also love that lava cakes call for no advance preparations, and no more than half-an-hour is needed from start to finish.
There’s only one “but,” (or, as one of our Bulgarian professors used to say, “there is one big but”): this dessert must be served as soon as possible, and the earliest you want to be pulling them out of the oven is before sitting down to eat supper. It will wait through the main course, but not much longer – otherwise the molten center firms up and the outside begins to dry out. Note that this recipe also divides in half beautifully, and if it’s just you and your sweetheart, don’t make more than two – they won’t keep, and I greatly doubt your ability to eat more than one at a time. I can’t do that, personally. And that says a lot.
To make this, all you do is beat 2 eggs and 2 yolks in a bowl with a whisk – only long enough to blend the whites and the yolks. Add sugar, cocoa, vanilla, flour, and melted butter. A stick-and-a-half is used to make four cakes – so pretend that you can’t count, because, if you can, you will realize that there are a whopping 3 tablespoons per cake. The good news is, contrary to the popular belief, butter is good for you, not bad. And the concern for the figure? Nothing but a cultural construct – and no cultural construct is going to come between me and the food on my plate. Moreover, them Victoria’s Secret models look starved – not attractive.
Now that you’ve made inner piece with the specified amount of butter, stir everything together with a whisk until homogeneous, preheat the oven to 475 degrees, arrange your oven’s baking rack in the lowest possible position, and distribute the resulting batter between four well-buttered custard cups (I don’t use non-stick sprays because I am ill at ease with the idea of food being delivered from an aerosol can. Something really goes against God’s design there). Now stick it in the oven and bake it for approximately 8 minutes (or more or less depending on the accuracy of your individual oven).
The real test though is to bake them until the sides look firm and the centers soft – not raw batter, but still visibly wobbly under the light crust of the surface. See the picture? That’s what you’ll be looking for. So watch them closely as they bake. Let them cool in the cups for 5 min to give them the chance to shrink a little and pull away from the sides of the cups.
To unmold, place a small plate on top of the custard cup and invert the whole thing, placing the plate on the counter and allowing the cake to slip out on its own. It will take a couple of moments, but if you buttered your cups diligently, the gravity should do the rest for ya.
See? Comes out.
Now the next best thing to do is to dust them with some more cocoa powder.
The little fine-mesh sieve shown here works perfectly for this.
Now for the topping. This actually needs to be made before you bake the cakes, but not much longer in advance – macerated berries don’t sit well for very long either, whether mixed into sour cream or on their own, tending to become too syrupy too fast.
Get yourself some in-season, patch-fresh berries. Strawberries at their peak deteriorate rapidly, so it’s best to use them the day they come to you. I don’t recommend attempting this with the supermarket kind. There’s really no point – they are hardly more than props. If that.
Once you get yourself such berries, feel free to revel in your local-organic chauvinism. Nothing wrong with that. And while you are at it, slice them like so.
Now sprinkle them with some granulated white sugar. I decided against giving you the proportions, because everyone’s idea of sweetness is different, and I like it sweeter than some, so keep adding one tablespoon at a time, stirring gently and tasting your berries after each addition, until they are as sweet as you like them. A few drops of lemon juice won’t hurt anything, either.
Oh look, there’s a bug! Hello bug! What? These are certified organic, and organic means that some bugs get to share some living space with your garden produce occasionally.
(Either pretend you didn’t see it or make peace with the fact that you did.)
Now add a generous spoonful of sour cream on top…
Stir it in… Isn’t this lovely?
Top your cakes with it, and go for it! You probably can’t wait to by now, anyway. And if no-one’s looking, in particular my children, in whom we want to instill good eating habits, I’ve been known to eat the dessert first.
“Heart of Darkness” Lava Cakes with Strawberries-in-Sour Cream Topping
For the topping:
- approximately 2 C farm-fresh, hulled, and sliced strawberries
- granulated sugar, to taste
- 2-3 T sour cream, or until the desired level of creaminess has been achieved
- a few drops of lemon juice, optional
Make this first. Place berries in a medium bowl. Sprinkle with sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring gently and tasting after each addition, until the desired level of sweetness has been achieved. Add a few drops of lemon juice, if desired (this boosts the color and the flavor a little). Gently fold in sour cream.
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 3/4 C granulated sugar
- a dash of vanilla extract
- 4 heaping T baking cocoa (dutch-process)
- 6 T flour
- 12 T (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted in a microwave or a small saucepan over low heat
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F and arrange the baking rack in the lowest possible position. Whisk the eggs and the yolks together to blend. Add sugar, vanilla, flour, cocoa, and butter (hot butter is fine, you don’t need to let it cool). Whisk together to combine. Divide between four well-buttered custard cups and bake for 8 min or until the sides are firm but the centers are wobbly. Let cool in cups for 5 min. Use your finger to gently loosen the sides of each cake from the sides of the cup. Place a small plate on top of each cup, invert it upside down, place the plate on a counter, and allow the cakes slip out on their own. This will take a couple of moments. Use a fine-mesh sieve or an equivalent to dust with cocoa, if desired. Spoon the topping over it and serve immediately or within 30 min (if waiting, don’t top them until you are ready to serve them).