The Truth About Ice Box Cake

The look of these retro cakes can range from the simple to the sublime. In the hands of a mom pressed for time but needing a quick dessert to dress up a meal, the icebox cake can be nothing more than thin chocolate cookies, stacked on their side, and held together with copious amounts of whipped cream. In the hands of a dessert master, the icebox cake becomes a form of self-expression, where packaged cookies become freshly baked ones or thin chocolate wafers become graham crackers; whipped cream can be plain, sweetened, or even leveled up by adding citrus zest, spices or preserves before the confection is topped with extras like caramel, ganache, crushed nuts – maybe even a few rainbow sprinkles (via Washington Post).

The heart of the icebox cake is a recipe that is still provided on the yellow Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers package, which calls for wafers to be stacked on their sides and held in place with copious amounts of sweetened whipped cream so they come together in a log. The package also very helpfully provides an image of what the cake might look like if the cookies are stacked on their side. The recipe has been around since the 1940s, but as The Kitchn points out, it wasn't original.

Icebox cakes were named for the appliances they were stored in

Printed recipes were floating around in the 1920s, long before Nabisco's came along. The cakes were meant to be assembled with the cookies and whipped cream and then left alone in the fridge (or the icebox as its first chefs had originally intended) where the cream's high fat and moisture might lean into the crisp cookie bits, turning them into flavorful soft and cakey layers (via The Kitchn). "These refrigerator desserts were quicker, easier ways of making charlottes, a chilled dessert that was hugely fashionable from about 1870 to World War I," author Stephen Schmidt told The Washington Post in 2004. Charlottes are made by lining a mold with sponge cake or ladyfingers and then filling that with custard or whipped cream that's been made firm by the addition of gelatin

The idea of making icebox cakes caught on because newly established food companies wanted to make slightly more complex desserts like the charlotte easier to make and more accessible to middle-income markets, and Nabisco wanted to sell cookies (via HeraldNet). 

Original Icebox cakes are easy to make

Serious Eats' writer Alexandra Penfold provides a play on the original Nabisco recipe, which calls three cups of heavy cream to be whipped with 1/2 cup sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract until soft peaks form. Lay a plastic wrap into a loaf pan, then spread a thin layer of whipped cream at the bottom. That cream should give you a foundation to lay cookies evenly into the pan on the short side, and by sticking them together with whipped cream (save whatever whipped cream you have leftover- you'll need that later). 

Penfold also reckons you'll need a minimum of nine to 11 cookies per row. Blanket the standing cookies with whipped cream put them in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight. When that is done, take the cake out, spread the remaining whipped cream on top, freeze for 30 minutes or until it solidifies, and slice before serving.

Icebox cakes are versatile

Because the icebox cake is a dessert maverick that plays by very few rules, you can make icebox cake with just about any cookie you can get your hands on, and assemble that with anything creamy you might find. Just remember that cookies need to be thin and crispy (thicker cookies retain their crunch), and you'll use whipped cream, pudding, and pastry cream as binders, although cookbook author Jessie Sheehan maintains whipped cream works best. 

Once all the work is done, you can up the ante by mixing in everything from salted caramel, fresh fruit, curd, ganache – even a bit of booze. Just remember to do yourself a favor and keep the dessert in a pyrex dish if you opt to make the filling a little runnier. To layer, start with the cream and add the cookie. Chill for at least eight hours, but overnight works best. Icebox cakes will survive an extended stay in the freezer – just defrost the dessert overnight in the fridge before serving (via Washington Post).