Before star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten put a chocolate cake with a molten center on the menu at his Manhattan restaurant JoJo in 1991, and even before Michel Bras patented his ganache-filled chocolate coulant in 1981, there was Texas housewife Ella Helfrich and her Tunnel of Fudge.
Helfrich’s Bundt cake with a soft, chocolaty ribbon running through the middle won second prize at a Pillsbury bake-off in 1966. It helped galvanize the Nordic Ware brand, which had created the Bundt pan, an economical aluminum version of a traditional European kugelhopf mold. Thanks to the appeal of Helfrich’s cake, annual sales of the tube pan soon doubled. “If Ella had invented the Tunnel of Fudge today—and subsequently helped a product sell millions of pieces—she would be forever blogged about, interviewed on national TV and contacted for ad campaigns,” says Brooklyn baker Matt Lewis, a co-owner of the bakery Baked, who discovered Helfrich while researching his newest book, Baked Elements.
Lewis has been Bundt cake-obsessed since adolescence, when “overly sweet lemon mini Bundts in a plastic clamshell were my after-school snack,” he says. Mini Bundt pans were some of the first kitchen tools he acquired, ahead of basic pots and pans, when he moved to New York in 1994. Eventually, he grew into a full-size 12-cup version—a commitment for a renter in a tiny New York apartment. He began picking up vintage and intricately shaped molds at garage sales and on eBay and now owns more than 25. “I have so many,” he says. “Light and dark, scratched and not, and they all bake differently.” He gets the best results from heavy cast iron, especially pieces made at the beginning of a production run, because they yield cakes with sharper lines.
When Lewis began working on the chocolate chapter for Baked Elements, he set out to re-create the Tunnel of Fudge, but without the original secret ingredient (a discontinued Pillsbury powdered frosting mix). “It’s not the kind of thing they teach you in culinary school,” he says. “I got so hung up on it. I did it over and over and over.” In the end, Lewis’s slightly more refined version, which uses hazelnuts, brown sugar, cocoa powder and butter, achieves the fudgy richness he was aiming for. Lewis knew that he’d nailed the recipe when all of his neighbors started asking for it. “They all stopped by—the super, the crazy guy down the hall—and begged me, ‘Can you please make this one again?’”