When chef Neville Simpson Craw first encountered molten chocolate cake as a student in the mid-'90s at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he was enchanted. Call it love at first ooze.
Years later, soon after he became the head corporate chef at a Sandy Springs, Ga.-based Arby's in 2004, he was trying to think of new dessert ideas for the casual restaurant chain. His team was fixated on the idea of adding a cupcake to the menu, but nothing was testing very well with consumers.
That’s when he remembered molten chocolate cake. He realized that the technique he'd learned in "Pastry and Baking" class -- depositing a frozen cube of melted chocolate in the center of a flourless chocolate cake -- was too labor-intensive for a chain with several thousand locations. But he was convinced that the warm, decadent dessert would appeal to customers looking for a sweet equivalent of Arby's signature roast beef sandwiches, and he noticed that other chains (most famously, Chili's) had successfully introduced molten chocolate cakes to their menu.
"The goal was to come up with something that could be successful in a fast food arena but still deliver on indulgence," Craw told The Huffington Post.
And so -- in early January, seven years after Craw first set his goal -- Molten Chocolate Lava Cake went on sale at Arby's locations around the country for the decidedly un-gourmet price of $1.99. But it wouldn't be quite accurate to say that the Molten Chocolate Lava Cake at Arby's is seven years in the making. More like 58.
That's because, as Lucky Peach managing editor Rachel Khong explained in a killer timeline in the Spring 2012 issue of that magazine, the molten chocolate cake first started to take shape back in 1966, when a Texas housewife won the 17th annual Pillsbury bake-off contest with a "Tunnel of Fudge" cake in a bundt pan. Various volcanic chocolate cakes popped up here and there in the '70s and '80s, but they didn't really start to take off until 1987, when Jean-Georges Vongerichten added a version of the dessert to the menu at his trendy French New York restaurant JoJo.
Food writer Florence Fabricant sounded the alarm about the rise of molten chocolate cake in an ecstatically adulatory article (""The Cakes That Take New York Erupt With Molten Chocolate"") in The New York Times Dining section four years later, on Nov. 27, 1991. "New Yorkers are calling it the best dessert. Ever," she wrote. "Tiramisu has had it. Creme brulee, watch out."
"The confection in question is a small warm chocolate cake that, when cut, oozes with intensely rich molten chocolate," she gushed. "This year, some version of it is being served in more than a dozen restaurants. New ones are added to the list almost daily."
The molten chocolate cake's popularity grew exponentially throughout the '90s. It eventually wound up on the dessert menu at every middle-brow hotel restaurant across the globe and even, as Khong points out, on the shelves of the baking supply section at Wal-Mart. (Not to mention Chili's, which added it to the menu in 2001.) For that reason, the dessert began to earn itself a bad name among most haute pastry chefs.
"It's just so tired," said Jenny McCoy, the former pastry chef at Craft in New York and the co-founder of high-end baking and cocoa mix company Cissé Trading Co.
"Now I'm just so sick of seeing it on menus," she continued. "Today, when I see it listed, it's the first indication that pastry is an afterthought and I shouldn't order it."
McCoy (who said she'd never consider selling a Cissé molten chocolate cake mix) explained that she's now willing to make one exception to her embargo: Jean Georges.
"Last time I was there, I tried 16 desserts -- and the best thing was their molten chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. It's so damn good. It's warm, it's gooey, it's soft … you don't have to think about it, it's amazing," McCoy said.
Yet even if chefs and jet-setting gastronauts grew tired of molten chocolate cake long ago, Arby's customers have responded enthusiastically to Craw’s creation, which gilds the lily of a classic dense chocolate cake and liquid center with chocolate drizzle and streusel. The cakes are baked in a commercial bakery (which had to develop new technology to efficiently deposit the lava inside them) then shipped frozen to Arby's locations around the country.
"We warm the cake up in a cup and the end result is really this super chocolatey product that delivers on what people who like the high-end products from white tablecloth restaurants would expect," Craw said. "In our consumer testing, this was one of the highest-ranking products that we've ever had at Arby's -- not just a dessert, but against all facets of our business."
The Arby's Molten Chocolate Cake may not be the first ooze of chocolate that many Americans will have tasted. But countless wedding anniversaries have taught us nothing if not that familiarity, seasoned with enough chocolate, can kindle love as surely as novelty.