In its simplest form, an icebox cake is a layered dessert of crispy cookies and fluffy whipped cream. But it is one that transforms into something truly magical and complex when placed in the fridge to firm up, as the cookies absorb the cream, softening into something downright caky and luscious.
The recipe for the original icebox cake, still printed on the back of the yellow Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers package, does not even require a pan for assembly: Instead, you stack cookies, nestled with dollops of whipped cream, vertically (domino-style as it were), and form a free-standing log on your serving platter.
Simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to icebox cakes, both in terms of staple ingredients and preparation, and I love them for that. But I also appreciate an icebox cake’s infinite riffability — swap graham crackers for cookies, pudding for whipped cream, add caramel or ganache, and assemble it in a variety of vessels. Thus, the following how-to tips and tricks will not only guide you in creating the easiest of these desserts but also offer suggestions for composing them playfully.
The caky layers give an icebox cake its structure and, well, caky-ness. This element can take many forms, such as cookies, graham crackers or ladyfingers. Cookies should be thin and crispy, and are best layered with whipped cream. (Thicker cookies, such as biscotti and some shortbread, remain a bit too toothsome even after the requisite rest in the fridge.) Graham crackers and ladyfingers (either the soft or crispy variety) work well with both whipped cream and pudding. If you’re feeling frisky, layer your icebox cake with chocolate graham crackers or cinnamon ones, peanut butter cookies or even ginger snaps.
The creamy layers soften the caky element and provide the icebox cake with its signature “creaminess.” Whipped cream, pudding and even pastry cream will work in an icebox cake, but whipped cream is best whisked until stiff peaks form — a bit longer than you would if topping a piece of pie — as the stiffer the peak, the more stable the finished cake. When sweetening whipped cream, I tend to add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar to every cup of heavy cream. And if going a bit rogue, by adding zest, juice, booze, spice or fruity preserves to your cream or pudding, let your taste buds guide you.
The playful element is where things really get fun. Not only can you choose from a variety of cookie flavors and infuse your cream or pudding with a little zip when assembling your icebox cake, but you can also add layers of lemon curd, salty caramel, dark chocolate ganache, fresh berries, marshmallow crème or rainbow sprinkles.
When choosing a pan or shape for your icebox cake, the possibilities are deliciously endless, provided you remember this: Cakes made with pudding or runny add-ins, such as caramel or ganache, do best in vessels with sides to contain oozing and spillage. Can you attempt a cake with ganache in a springform pan and hope for the best upon removal of the pan’s sides? Of course. But to be safe, you should assemble those kinds of cakes in your prettiest pottery or a Pyrex dish.
When layering, I always begin with the creamy element, as it anchors the cake to the serving dish or platter, followed by a caky layer and then, if using, I spread or sprinkle something playful. I like to keep my layers thin — just enough of the creamy element to completely cover the caky one, with no holes or gaps between cookies or crackers (this usually requires breaking them into pieces), and vice versa. Continue to assemble in this order until you reach the top of your pan or run out of an element, finishing the cake with something creamy.
To ensure your cake properly sets up, I recommend chilling it in the refrigerator, lightly covered with plastic wrap, for at least 8 hours, and preferably overnight. Cakes made with very thin cookies may be ready in less time.
After it has rested, decorating your cake with sparkling sugar, crushed candy, citrus zest, chocolate curls, sprinkles or toasted nuts is a lovely way not only to finish the cake but also to add texture.
Final notes to chill by
DIYing: Assembling an icebox cake can be nearly effortless, but if making homemade crispy, thin cookies (or graham crackers or ladyfingers) is your thing, by all means, go for it. An icebox cake made with homemade caky layers is undoubtedly something special, as is one made with homemade pudding, caramel or jam.
Seasonality: There is no question that an ice-cold icebox cake is the perfect summer entertaining dessert. I mean, parties need cake, and who wants to turn on the oven when the kitchen is already beyond toasty? It can also serve as the ideal showcase for your latest haul from the farmers market, via layers of fresh strawberries or tiny chunks of juicy black plums or nectarines. But icebox cakes are truly fantastic any time of the year — think ginger-chai for Thanksgiving, peppermint-chocolate for Christmas, or Black Forest for Valentine’s Day.
Making ahead and freezing: If its ease and flexibility haven’t persuaded you to join Team Icebox Cake, perhaps this will. Not only do icebox cakes have to be made ahead — ideal for that barbecue next Wednesday night, the potluck this weekend and for those hosts among us (um, me) who like to have as much of the meal and all of the dessert finished before her guests’ arrival — but they freeze beautifully. Follow the tips for wrapping and refrigerating your cake, and after 24 hours, cover it in aluminum foil and freeze for up to a month. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before serving the next day.
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