Icebox Cakes

icebox cakes cover
by Jean Sagendorph and Jessie Sheehan
Photographs © 2015 by Tara Donne

Facts: Chronicle Books, 128 pages $18.95 (or Amazon Hardcover $14.71 Kindle $8.99)
Photos: One for each recipe
Recipes: 24

I took a walk down Memory Lane when I saw Icebox Cakes: Recipes for the Coolest Cakes in Town come across my desk. I have a vague memory of icebox cakes from early childhood but my recollection is rather beige, i.e., rows of vanilla wafers between layers of vanilla pudding. Hardly a resemblance to what I’ve seen in this book.

It is widely held that icebox cakes evolved from Marie-Antoine Carême’s  French charlotte, a combination of ladyfingers and custard dating from the early 1800’s. More than a century later, the National Biscuit Company (AKA Nabisco) introduced chocolate wafers ⎯ which were packaged with an icebox cake recipe. It was an easy, quick dessert: just buy wafers and whip up a lot of cream. Even more attractive was the homemaker didn’t have to light the oven (back when few homes were air-conditioned).

Jean Sagendorph and Jessie Sheehan’s creative and contemporary recipes are totally 21st century. The cakes are made in loaf pans, springforms, 8 x 8 or  9 x 13 pans. And though they specify a container, I believe since there is no baking after assembly, you can decide which container to use (assuming it’s about the same volume as what was specified). They offer the latitude to make your own cookies/wafers or save time by purchasing. If you choose “store bought,” they make suggestions such as Nabisco’s, Trader Joe’s Meyer Lemon Cookie Thins, and Anna’s Thins, etc.

If you want to bake your own wafers, their traditional recipes include ladyfingers, vanilla wafers and homemade chocolate wafers. Then they kick it up a notch, adding Mexican Chocolate Spice, Pistachio, Red Velvet and Black Pepper.

Some fillings are tinted with the juice of a fruit or liqueur. Others add nuts, spices or even peanut butter, yielding icebox cakes like Black-Pepper Rum, Key-Lime Pie and Chai-Ginger. These are not your grandmother’s icebox cakes.

Match the heat of a summer night with this Mexican Chocolate Spice icebox cake. Don’t be put off — or intimidated — by the length of this recipe. Experienced bakers may not need the full detail the authors have given, but it’s certainly helpful for novices.


Mexican Chocolate Spice

Photography © by Tara Donne

Yield: 12 to 15 servings

This cake is for those who like a little heat with their chocolate. The combination of cinnamon, black pepper, chili powder, and just a touch of cayenne give this cake an unexpected kick. (You’ll have extra wafers left over after assembling your cake – lucky you! Store them in a resealable plastic bag in the freezer and enjoy them for up to 1 month).
One 9-by-5-by-3-in/23-by-12-by-7.5-cm loaf pan
One 10-in/25-cm oval or rectangular serving platter

Makes about 60 wafers
1 1/4 cups/170 g all-purpose flour
3/4 cup/75 g Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups/250 g granulated sugar
3/4 cup/170 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Makes about 6 cups/720 grams
3 cups/720 ml heavy cream
1/3 cup/45 g confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Ground cinnamon and granulated sugar, whisked together until well blended, for decorating

Make the wafers
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, spices, and salt.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the granulated sugar, butter, and vanilla on a medium-low speed until slightly fluffy, about 2 minutes. Be careful not to overbeat. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the milk and corn syrup to combine. Add the milk mixture to the butter-sugar mixture with the mixer on medium-low speed; beat until just combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl with the rubber spatula.

4. Add the flour mixture all at once to the mixer bowl. With the mixer on low speed, beat until the dough just begins to pull away from the bottom of the bowl to fully incorporate all the ingredients.

5. Divide the dough in half and place each half on a sheet of plastic wrap. Loosely wrap the dough and form each half into a log about 2 in/5 cm wide. Roll the logs along the counter, still wrapped in plastic wrap, in order to shape into perfect cylinders. Tighten the plastic wrap around the logs and freeze them for at least 2 hours, or overnight. If you have trouble forming the soft dough into logs, form the dough into a disk (or loose log shape), wrap it in plastic wrap, and place in the freezer for about 20 minutes, just until it is cold enough to shape into the necessary log. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

6. Once frozen, unwrap one of the logs and use a sharp paring or chef’s knife to cut it into thin slices and 1/8 in/3 mm thick; rotate the log as you slice, or the side sitting on the cutting surface will flatten. Arrange the slices about 1 in/2.5 cm apart on one of the prepared baking sheets and place in the freezer for at least 10 minutes. Repeat with the second log and prepared baking sheet. If you need more room to fit all your dough slices, simply arrange them on additional sheets of parchment paper, lay the dough-covered papers on top of the other on the second baking sheet in the freezer, and switch them out as you bake off each batch. (You can also wrap the baking sheets in plastic wrap and freeze the rounds for up to 1 week.)

7. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F/180°C.

8. Place one baking sheet of the frozen dough rounds in the oven and bake until they appear dry, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through the baking time. Using a solid metal or plastic spatula, immediately press down lightly on each cookie to flatten it. Let the wafers cool on the baking sheet for 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. The wafers should be very crispy when cooled. If they are not, place them back in the 350°F/180°C oven for 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat to bake the additional sheets of frozen dough rounds.

9. Store the wafers in an airtight container as soon as they have cooled. They will remain crispy at room temperature, tightly sealed, for about 24 hours. Freezing the baked wafers in a resealable plastic bag also works well, for up to 1 month. There is no need to defrost the wafers before assembling your cake.

Make the Whipped Cream
1. Refrigerate the bowl of a stand mixer and the whisk attachment (or medium metal bowl and beaters from a hand mixer) until quite cold, about 15 minutes.

2. Once chilled, remove the bowl and whisk from the refrigerator, add the cream, and whip it on medium speed until just thickened.

3. Add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and cayenne and, on medium-high speed, whip the cream until it hold stiff peaks that stand upright when the whisk is raised (the stiffer the cream, the more support it will provide the wafers in your cake). Use it immediately.

Assemble the Cake
1. Line the loaf pan with plastic wrap that hangs slightly over the pan sides. Using a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon, spread a generous layer of the whipped cream on the bottom of the lined pan.

2. Cover as much of the whipped cream as possible with a layer of the wafers, filling in any gaps with broken wafers. The pieces should touch. The goal is a solid layer of wafers.

3. Continue layering whipped cream and wafers until you run out or reach the top of the pan, ending with whipped cream. Gently cove the cake with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 24 hours.

4. Peel the plastic wrap from the cake, place the serving platter over the cake, and invert the cake onto the platter. Carefully remove the pan and plastic-wrap lining and dust the cinnamon sugar on top of the cake. Using a knife, cut it into slices and serve.

1 reply
  1. jessie sheehan
    jessie sheehan says:

    thank you for featuring our book and this yummy cake! just to clarify: one actually CAN”T mix and match the pans that the cakes are assembled in – it is best to use the vessel prescribed by the recipe. this is because pudding cakes, for instance, cannot be made in a loaf pan. and a cake with a combo of pudding and caramel, for instance, needs a pan with sides (not a spring form or a loaf pan). happy not baking!!


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