Icebox cake 101

Invented for when it's too hot to turn on the oven

click to enlarge Stars and Stripes icebox cake. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MEYER.
Photo by Ashley Meyer.
Stars and Stripes icebox cake.

When temperatures soar there's nothing so pleasing as a recipe that doesn't require the use of an oven or stove. Enter the icebox cake. These old-fashioned desserts became popular in the 1930s as reliable refrigeration became a new reality for many American households. Essentially a spinoff of classic layered desserts like trifle tiramisu, an icebox cake doesn't actually contain any "cake." Instead, crispy cookies are layered with creamy filling and additions like fruit or nuts then allowed to set for an extended period of time in the refrigerator. Not really so much a recipe as a formula, this dessert is infinitely adaptable and a great option for feeding a large group of people. It's also an easy choice for folks with dietary concerns, thanks to a greater availability of specialty vegan/gluten-free products on the market.

The dish

Icebox cakes can be made in any regular baking dish and served right out of the dish. Or they can be made in a loaf or springform pan and turned out for a more elegant presentation. You can also create a free form cake directly on a plate or cake stand. Just be sure there's space available in the fridge.

The cookie

The first step in building a delicious icebox cake is selecting the right cookie. It must be light enough to soak in the cream and other fillings, yet crispy and resilient enough to hold its shape and slice cleanly after sitting in the fridge. Thin chocolate wafers are a classic choice as well as crisp Italian ladyfingers. Graham crackers, ginger snaps or vanilla wafers are also popular options – you can even use saltine crackers.

The filling

Next you're going to layer the cookies or crackers with some sort of creamy filling. Whipped cream is lovely on its own, or you can augment it with other flavors and textures. Ingredients like Greek yogurt, softened cream cheese, ricotta or mascarpone add tang and help to stabilize the mixture, which is especially helpful if you're planning to unmold it. Whip the cheese or yogurt in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy then add chilled whipping cream. Continue to whisk until slightly stiff peaks form. For a dairy-free option, use chilled coconut cream. Whatever creamy filling you choose, sweeten it lightly using powdered sugar, honey or maple sugar. Consider the sweetness of your cookies or crackers when deciding how sweet to make the filling.

Lighter ingredients like extracts, liqueurs and dry items like cocoa, espresso powder or cinnamon should be added at the beginning when you start whipping. Heavy or chunky ingredients like fruit purée or Nutella, crushed cookie crumbs or chopped nuts should be folded in at the end.

The layers

If you're planning to unmold the cake, line your pan with foil or plastic wrap so it hangs over the sides to facilitate easy removal from the pan and keep in mind that the bottom layer will become the top once it is inverted. Spread a thin smear of cream then begin to layer the cookies, making sure to minimize gaps as much as possible. (Cut or break cookies to fit the corners). Think of each layer as an opportunity to build flavor. You can brush the cookies with liqueur, syrup or a smear of lemon curd or jam before adding another layer of cream. Other fun ideas include fresh fruit, cocoa nibs, sprinkles or chopped nuts. Once you've finished assembling all the layers, give the dish a firm rap on the counter to dispel any air pockets.

The final touches

Be sure to allow at least eight to 10 hours for the cake to set in the refrigerator, especially if it is to be unmolded. Decorate your cake simply by spreading the cream mixture over the top or transfer some into a piping bag fitted with a decorative tip for a more formal presentation. Hint at what's layered inside by decorating with reserved filling ingredients such as fresh berries, chocolate shavings or candied citrus slices.

Stars and Stripes Icebox Cake

8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar or ¼ cup honey
3 cups whipping cream, chilled
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups each blueberries and raspberries, washed and patted dry
30 graham crackers (from about 4 sleeves), or other thin crispy cookie or cracker
Additional berries for decorating

Add the cream cheese and sweetener of your choice to a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until soft and creamy, then add the chilled cream, salt and vanilla and beat until stiff. (Be careful not to turn it into butter.)

Spread a thin layer of cream over the bottom of a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish to hold the crackers in place, then arrange the first layer in the dish. Spread a fourth of the cream mixture over the crackers, then evenly scatter one third of the berries (1 1/3 cups) on top. Top with a second layer of crackers, cream and more berries. Repeat for a total of three berry layers and four layers of crackers. Spread the last fourth of cream over the final layer of crackers. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for eight to 10 hours. Decorate with additional fruit as desired. Serve well-chilled and for clean slices cut with a knife that has been dipped in hot water.

Ashley Meyer is a cook and food writer living in Springfield with her husband and two children.

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