Molten Chocolate, Meringue, and More: Flourless Cakes, Explained
They're not all gluten-free, but each one is uniquely delicious.
Scan any restaurant menu, and you're bound to see at least one flourless cake, like the one here, on the dessert list. As gluten-free diets have become mainstream, flourless cakes (and cupcakes and cookies, too) are everywhere. These desserts don't fall into one simple category, as many cakes do. Rather, they run the gamut in terms of the ingredients, flavors, textures, and techniques used to make them. You could say that flourless cakes are categorized not by what they contain, but rather by what they do not.
Flourless cakes have actually been around since long before the current appetite for gluten-free options—they just weren't quite as ubiquitous. One well-known example is Torta Caprese, invented on the Italian island of Capri in the early 20th century. The precise history of this ultra-rich chocolate-nut cake is hard to come by, but it may have been the (delicious) result of an accident, caused by a baker who forgot to add flour. Whatever its origin, the cake remains popular with tourists all over Italy—and around the world—today. It's generously dusted with confectioners' sugar to finish, sometimes through a stencil with the word Caprese cut-out.
Similarly rich, dense, flourless cakes are often marked by words like "decadence," "oblivion," and "nemesis" in their titles. I found one described as a "rhapsody" in a Maida Heatter cookbook from the early 1980s. In fact, many such recipes were introduced on restaurant menus throughout the 1980s, when richness was all the rage—in desserts and otherwise.
One restaurant menu favorite is the molten chocolate cake, or lava cake. The individual desserts are served warm, with a creamy accompaniment like ice cream or crème anglaise. French chef Michel Bras is credited with creating the molten chocolate cake in 1981, after a day spent skiing with his family. He sought to recreate the experience of drinking a hot chocolate in cake form. His chocolate cake features a center of oozing chocolate (or rather, a piece of frozen chocolate ganache that never completely melds with the surrounding cake batter as it bakes). Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten introduced a similar dessert several years later in New York City. His soft, warm, chocolate cakes were such an immediate hit, they were soon replicated by chefs all over the city and the country. Ultimately, molten chocolate cakes became the most popular restaurant dessert of the 1990s and for many years afterwards. It's worth noting, however, that Vongerichten's cakes contain a small amount of flour, so they are not technically flourless, though gluten-free variations of molten chocolate desserts have since been widely developed.
Many flourless cakes are known as tortes, though not all tortes are flourless. The word torte has its own somewhat complicated definition. Traditional tortes cakes usually rely on ground nuts or matzo meal in place of the flour, and their origins can be traced to Central or Eastern Europe, particularly to Vienna, Austria. Many of these flourless tortes are served for Passover, when Jewish dietary laws prohibit the consumption of flour. All are wonderful any time of year, of course. Just keep in mind that if a torte or other cake recipe has Passover in the title, it's most likely flourless. (Consider using "Passover dessert" as your search term if you're looking for a flourless cake.)
Meringue cakes are another traditional gluten-free option. They are made primarily with whipped egg whites and sugar, beaten together to form stiff peaks, then baked at a low temperature until crisp. Perhaps the best known is the Pavlova, developed in honor of Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballerina who toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920's; the billowy meringue shell was said to be a tribute to her tutu. Pavlovas are usually filled with mounds of softly whipped cream and fresh fruit. A Vacherin (named for the French cheese it resembles) consists of disks of baked meringue layered with cream (or ice cream) and fresh fruit. Finally, there's the dacquoise, another flourless, meringue-based cake that incorporates nuts into the egg white and sugar mixture. Like the Vacherin, a dacquoise is layered; the nut meringue discs are sandwiched with buttercream, chocolate ganache, whipped cream, or other rich fillings and frostings.
Currently, many so-called flourless cakes incorporate alternatives to milled and ground wheat rather than simply omitting flour altogether. These cakes rely on ingredients made from other, gluten-free grains such as rice, corn, and spelt. You can also find "alt" flours made from coconut or legumes. Not all alt flours work well on their own in cake recipes, though cornmeal and buckwheat can be used to bake nicely textured, quite delicious gluten-free cakes. Italian bakers have long made wonderful flourless cakes with cornmeal and citrus.
These days, it helps to have a few flourless cake recipes in your regular dessert rotation, whether or not you are avoiding gluten personally—for group dinners, birthday parties, bake sales, or any other occasion when you want to bake something to please (nearly) everyone.