Timing is everything when making a fondant au chocolat, as the results can vary greatly if you don’t pay attention…
When chef Michel Bras perfected the original recipe for biscuit de chocolat coulant in 1981, little did he know that within a couple of decades his runny-centred cake would usurp classics such as cr�me br�l�e or chocolate mousse.
Not only has this cake – also known less accurately as fondant au chocolat or moelleux au chocolat – become a ubiquitous dessert in French restaurants, it can also be bought frozen to pop into the microwave at home.
It’s easy to understand the popularity of a cake that collapses under the fork to release a pool of molten chocolate, enhanced by a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. This is French comfort food at its best, an ending that is hard to resist even after a rich meal (particularly if you order one for two people). Yet, if the coulant au chocolat is nearly always satisfying, only rarely is it sublime.
This makes sense when you consider that Bras, a star chef at his eponymous restaurant at Laguiole in the Aveyron d�partement, spent two years developing his recipe, in which he inserts a cork-shaped piece of frozen ganache into a chocolate cake batter lightened with frothy egg whites. He then freezes the whole thing before baking it until the outside is cooked but the interior is still liquid. Bras uses short lengths of garden hose to shape his ganache, something that few home cooks, or many other restaurant chefs for that matter, are likely to copy.
Thus, the quick version of coulant au chocolat was born: a cake batter unabashedly rich in butter and chocolate that remains runny inside when baked briefly in a hot oven. Though this version is much easier to prepare, it also has a greater risk of going wrong: an inaccurate oven temperature or a few minutes’ inattention can transform it into a brownie.
Though I had eaten my share of coulants over the years, I had an epiphany while making a guest chef appearance at the bistro La Table de Claire in eastern Paris. Not used to the gruelling hours of restaurant service, I felt depleted after three days and nights in front of the stove preparing labour-intensive specialities from Nice. Claire Seban, the restaurant’s chef at that time, pointed to a tray of chocolate fondant cakes that had just emerged from the oven. “Help yourself,” she said.
Standing in the kitchen spooning chocolate cake straight off the baking tray, I had never encountered such a perfect balance of crunchy and smooth, sweet and bitter – though I’ll admit that hunger and fatigue may have enhanced the experience. Even the requisite scoop of ice cream didn’t seem necessary.
Claire’s secret, apart from a well-designed recipe and perfect timing, was the quality of her chocolate. Many of the best French chefs work with Valrhona, choosing from pure-origin baking chocolates such as Manjari from Madagascar or Guanaja from the Caribbean. Because the coulant contains very little flour, the character of the chocolate makes all the difference. If you can’t get your hands on Valrhona (a good source is the pastry supply shop Detou in Paris, tel: (Fr) 1 42 36 54 67), it is worth experimenting with high-quality chocolates from the supermarket.
Once you have selected your chocolate, the key is to try the recipe once or twice to get the timing just right. Because the coulant appears barely cooked when the timer goes off, the temptation is always to leave it in too long. Remember that it will continue to cook for a few minutes once out of the oven and that during this time the liquid interior will thicken slightly. At that point, the only challenge is to stop yourself from lapping it up before serving it to your guests.
Fondant au chocolat recipe from La Table de Claire
With black-and-white floor tiles, a Formica bar, modern light fixtures and a sunny terrace, this is the little bistro everyone dreams of having around the corner. La Table de Claire in the 11th arrondissement made its name thanks to the ‘chef d’un soir’ nights, in which amateur chefs would take over the restaurant. Chef Claire Seban has moved on to other projects, but the current chef/owner, Lofti Sioud, continues to serve a spontaneous cuisine inspired by his travels and by seasonal produce. Because so many customers had a soft spot for Claire’s fondant au chocolat, it often appears on the menu.
• 220g dark chocolate, the best you can afford
• 200g butter
• 100g white sugar
• 5 eggs
• 1 level tbsp flour
• A little butter for the mould
1. Preheat the oven to 180�C.
2. In a heavy saucepan, melt the dark chocolate and butter together over a low heat. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Let the mixture cool to lukewarm and add the eggs one by one. Finally, fold in the flour.
3. Pour the batter into eight buttered ring moulds placed on a baking sheet, or eight buttered shallow dishes (cr�me br�l�e dishes would work well). Bake for eight minutes.
4. Serve warm or at room temperature with a scoop of vanilla or caramel ice cream.
La Table de Claire
30 Rue �mile Lepeu
Tel: (Fr) 1 43 70 59 84