When you make an icebox cake, you participate in an act of magic. You make something out of nothing. You perform alchemy! And, if you go cuckoo at the thought of all the possible combinations, you can fashion yourself an artiste (we certainly did!).
From two (sometimes three) ingredients and a simple layering process, a spoonable dessert—nearly unbelievable in its moussey lightness and its unified flavor—is born. One food writer compared eating icebox cake to sampling a freshly-made Oreo. Or imagine licking just-churned cookies and cream ice cream straight off the paddle—except no brain freeze, and the texture is so airy, you can swipe up every last bit with your finger.
The icebox cake has its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when masterful desserts, like charlottes (custard-filled, lady finger-lined chilled
monstrosities behemoths) were reconfigured for middle-class housewives who were looking for streamlined simplicity (and commercial food companies that were searching for new ways to market their products).
But if that classic cake—Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers and softly-whipped, lightly-sweetened cream—is the zebra of no-bake cakes, consider these other options the peacocks, the cockatoos, the unicorns, the leafy seadragons (I did not make this up—these incredible animals exist). Which is all to say, are your cameras ready? These icebox cakes 2.0 are a little showier, a touch glitzier, but they're nearly as easy to assemble and they rely on the same basic formula...
Cookies of choice
Nilla wafers, Graham crackers, animal crackers, chocolate chip cookies, gingersnaps, Oreos, amaretti cookies, Milanos, Biscoff, butter waffles—just avoid "coated" cookies (like frosted animal crackers) that will not be able to absorb the moisture from the whipped cream, as they'll remain firm
Whipped cream of choice
Coffee- and/or booze-spiked; swirled with jam, peanut butter, tahini, caramel, dulce de leche, lemon curd; folded with cocoa powder, grapefruit zest, a splash of Campari; tangy with crème fraîche or Greek yogurt
Chopped chocolate, nuts, chocolate-covered espresso beans, or Luxardo cherries; cocoa nibs; fresh fruit; pistachio paste
Toppers and garnishes
Chocolate shavings or curls; marshmallows (brûlée them!); chocolate, strawberry, or caramel sauce; sprinkles; the streusel from your freezer
Customize each category to your liking. If you're hunting for a unifying theme, look for inspiration from classic desserts—like tiramisu or banana cream pie or strawberry shortcake, or choose a color schemes—pink, green, yellow, golden—or a flavor profiles (fruity, chocolatey, nutty, salty-sweet).
Once you've picked your materials, arrange a layer of cookies, a layer of whipped cream, a layer of cookies... repeat until you're finished. You can make a freestanding icebox cake on a round plate or tuck it into a plastic wrap-lined loaf pan for the neatest appearance. Finish with a layer of whipped cream if you want softness throughout, or end on a layer of cookies if you're looking for more of a top crust sort of situation. Stick it in the fridge for 8 to 12 hours and the next time you see it, the cookies and cream will have joined in a perfect union.
You'll find yourself with so many possibilities that you might not need to make any other type of dessert for the rest of
your life the summer (and there's always the classic chocolate cookies and cream to fall back on).
We took that basic formula, along with some inspiration from our favorite desserts, and made seven icebox cakes with seven very different personalities:
Clockwise, from top left and spiraling inwards to the center:
Biscoff cookies + whipped cream spiked with 1 tablespoon of espresso power and 1 tablespoon amaretto + cocoa powder and chocolate shavings
Animal crackers + vanilla bean-flecked mascarpone whipped cream + rainbow sprinkles
Milano cookies + whipped cream mixed with pistachio paste + halved strawberries and chopped chocolate
Thin Mints (but we'd recommend Oreos instead—Thin Mints remain firm because of their chocolate shell) + mint-infused matcha whipped cream + sifted matcha
Tate's chocolate chip cookies + whipped cream mixed with chopped Luxardo cherries and miniature chocolate chips + additional cherries and chocolate
Belgian butter waffle cookies + whipped cream folded with raspberry preserves and almond extract + fresh fruit, confectioners' sugar, and sliced almonds
Graham crackers + whipped cream folded with lemon curd + marshallow "meringue" topping
But this is just the beginning! If we had had more time (and more loaf pans), we would have made a chocolate-covered almond icebox cake, a chocolate blackout icebox cake, a pumpkin pie icebox cake, a peanut butter-oatmeal icebox cake... (And for even more ideas, there are whole cookbooks you can reference, like Icebox Cakes: Recipes for the Coolest Cakes in Town.)
When icebox cakes can turn into just about any dessert, is there any reason to power on your oven before September?
Is it obvious yet? That you could spend your whole life making icebox cakes? Or at least your whole summer? But here! Proof—from my real life—that I fully endorse icebox cakes as the easy and impressive summer dessert, even when talking to my actual friends:
Friends encourage friends to make icebox cake.
What's your favorite no-bake summer dessert? Tell us in the comments below.