Assemble, Chill And Serve
"And there is a story behind this," says author Stephen Schmidt, who is working on an in-depth history of American desserts.
This icebox cake, he says, is part of a much larger group of 1930s refrigerated desserts that have their roots in the late 1800s.
"These refrigerator desserts were quicker, easier ways of making charlottes, a chilled dessert that was hugely fashionable from about 1870 to World War I," says Schmidt. A charlotte was made by lining a pan or decorative mold with ladyfingers or sponge cake and filling it with a cooked custard or flavored whipped cream that had been firmed up with gelatin.
At the same time, he says, thin chocolate cookies, always called wafers, had been very fashionable since the 1880s and early 1890s. "A number of them are in the first Fannie Farmer cookbook and other books of that vintage," says Schmidt. It's not surprising that wafers were among the first commercial cookies.
As food companies began to grow in the 1920s, they looked for better ways to market their products. Complex desserts like the charlotte were reconfigured, says Schmidt, "to make them more accessible to middle-class housewives" and, in Nabisco's case, to help sell cookies. Unlike the more complicated charlottes, the icebox cake was the essence of speed and simplicity.
Schmidt associates the icebox cake with his grandmother, who made it in the '30s and '40s, and his mother, who made it when he was growing up in the '60s.
"People are rediscovering it," he says. "They think it's delicious and so completely simple. It's not garish or over the top."
Versions of the dessert have appeared recently in Everyday Food magazine, where the whipped cream was flavored with a little mint extract, and in Fine Cooking magazine, where it was given a more sophisticated twist with coffee and hazelnuts. On the Food Network, chef Sara Moulton has demonstrated a version made with fresh raspberries.
So where can you find the Famous Chocolate Wafers? I trolled the cookie aisles at four supermarkets before I hit pay dirt at a Giant near my home.
As I walked down the aisle, I ignored the eye-level shelves where the most popular, heavily advertised cookies sat. Instead, I stood on tiptoe, searching the top shelf where the less flashy cookies were stashed. And that's when I saw them. The narrow, bright yellow box with the clear cellophane-wrapped top. The tightly packed row of dark chocolate wafers just visible inside. I reached up. There were two boxes left. Just enough, I thought, for one cake and lots of wafers left over for snacking.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
'Famous Chocolate Wafers' are familiar to generations of Americans, but finding them in your local supermarket may be a challenge.
(Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)