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Easy-peasy chocolate puddings

SARAH MCINERNEY
Last updated 05:00 30/06/2011
Nigella Lawson
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COMFORT FOOD: Nigella Lawson's chocolate puddings are cake-like on the outside and gooey on the inside.

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When it's cold outside and you've got a hankering for something sweet, it's hard to go past a chocolate pudding.

And you can't get much simpler than the self-saucing variety.

High on the comfort factor and heavy on the chocolate, recipes range from the ultra-quick mid-week version to the rich and decadent indulgence-in-a-ramekin you might find on a restaurant dessert menu.

In the world of puddings it may not be the best looker but what it lacks in appearance it more than makes up for in taste. It also has ease and speed on its side, as well as a touch of magic.

Sprinkle brown sugar and cocoa powder over the top of the batter, pour over boiling water and pop it in the oven. A short time later and a transformation has taken place. The toppings have combined to form a thick sauce, sinking to the bottom, and the pudding itself has emerged through the top. I like mine with cream but ice cream and custard also have their merits.

Unlike their cousins, the soft-centred molten/lava cakes, cocoa powder rather than melted chocolate flavour the pudding, along with a touch of vanilla extract.  Some recipes also include a shot of coffee.
Given the pudding can be tweaked through ingredients or cooking method to suit different occasions and situations, I have road tested a selection below. 

In a bizarre coincidence, I did the bulk of my cooking for this blog on national chocolate pudding day (June 26), an event the interweb informs me is celebrated every year in the US, at least by food bloggers.  Although I suspect this 'celebration' is more in honour of the chocolate custard dessert popular in the US than the hearty cake-variety we enjoy here.

Quick and easy

There's something very appealing about a recipe which promises to deliver a dessert in 18 minutes and requires no mixing bowl and therefore less washing up.

The UK edition of Delicious magazine features a microwave self-saucing chocolate pudding that's very easy to make and not bad to eat. It took me 23 minutes all up - 10 to make the batter, eight minutes to cook and five minutes to rest, making it a good option for a busy week night. The cake itself was a bit dry but scoop out some more sauce and smother it in ice cream and problem solved. Would I serve it at a dinner party? No. But if I was hankering for a pudding and was pressed for time, I might give it a whirl.

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Rich indulgence

Bill Granger's chocolate self-saucing pudding recipe adds eggs and double the amount of cocoa powder so I know it's going to be rich and decadent. It's one of those recipes where you'd be happy just to eat a giant bowl of the cake batter. This is helped by the fact that I upgraded to the fancy Valrhona cocoa powder.  It's so delicious I actually contemplate pouring the mixture into a parfait dish and serving it as a 'mousse', but restrain myself.

Cracked and knobbly in appearance, it's not a very elegant dish. But boy is it delicious. It has a lovely crusty top too.  

With dinner party desserts in mind, I also made Nigella Lawson's molten chocolate baby cakes. These work on the theory that you cook them just enough to ensure the outside is solid and cake-like, while leaving the centre in a liquid state.  I felt a bit like a MasterChef contestant staring down Gary, George and Matt as my lunch guests broke into them. Sadly, the centre didn't come oozing out, but it was still soft and squishy (I had popped them back in the oven for an extra two minutes). These were pretty as a picture, and impressed my lunch guests - not just because they were delicious but because of the drama of cutting into the middle.  Some fruit and cream on the side is essential to cut through the sweetness - it was sugar headaches all round as we tucked in.

Neither Plain Eater nor I could finish either of these desserts, although in a dinner party situation where the red wine is flowing, it's often possible to take on previously unimaginable feats of consumption! However, making them both in smaller ramekins would probably be advisable.

Coffee kick

Both Stephanie Alexander and Margaret Fulton use coffee in their recipes. Alexander adds a shot of espresso to the sauce and Fulton some instant coffee to the pudding batter. Just one mouthful of these puddings and you understand why. They contain half the cocoa powder of Granger's recipe, so are less chocolatey, but the coffee compensates for this by adding another layer of flavour.

The first cut into Alexander's releases a beautiful aroma of espresso, the flavour of which is quite subtle. In Fulton's the coffee flavour is barely noticeable. Another big difference in these puddings is the texture. Alexander's uses baking powder and flour and Fulton's self-raising flour. The former has a crusty top (as did Granger's) and the latter is smoother. Both are the most eatable of all the puddings I've tried, but that's not to detract from Granger and Lawson's options, which were an immensely enjoyable indulgence, even if I couldn't finish them.

Light option

Weight Watchers has a chocolate self-saucing pudding recipe in one of its cook books (six points for those on the programme). It cuts back on the sugar (swapping caster for brown), rejects butter for canola spread, and uses skim milk. Portion size is smaller too - ¾ cup capacity ramekins.

The quantity is good, but it lacks sweetness and the cake is quite swamped by the sauce. It also has a slightly bitter after taste. This and the microwave version are my least favourite of all the puddings, but both serve a purpose and were perfectly fine to eat with some (low-fat) ice cream.

Road test observations

For a pudding that's so simple to make there are some big variances in texture and flavour. Here are some of the lessons I learned from trialling the different recipes:

  • For a milder pudding, one you can happily eat without putting yourself in a food coma, look for a recipe that cuts back on the cocoa but adds flavour through coffee.
  • If you like a crusty pudding, consider using plain flour and baking powder rather than self-raising flour. That way you can increase the ratio of raising agent to flour, which seems to impact the texture.
  • If you're going for rich and decadent, consider reducing the size of the ramekins and don't skimp on the cream and berries on the side.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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