Summer desserts: Icebox cake
When I first moved to California, I had completely unrealistic expectations about the weather. I expected it to be beach weather at all times, with no need for socks or jackets or anything practical. As it turns out, my sense of geography is terrible and California is bigger than I realized, with climates to match. Near us, outside San Francisco, it became apparent that winter actually still happens. Not the painful sub-zero wind chill, dig your car out of the snow, wet-hair-freezing kind of cold that I grew up with, but rainy and windy and cold enough for scarves. Very slowly the days have been warming, but it feels like the same eternity as when you’re sitting in your frozen car waiting for the heat to kick in.
Last weekend, the temperature shot up to a record-breaking, unseasonably warm 85 degrees, and I went into full-on summer break mode. I slept with the window open; woke up gleeful as if SCHOOL’S OUT FOR THE SUMMER, did my work in sundresses, and froze orange juice to make popsicles. As with everything, I wanted to celebrate with food. Ever since I ate all my Easter candy, the kitchen was back to its usual sad, no-sweets state. But with the heat, the last thing I wanted to do was crank up the oven.
Instead, I found a recipe for a no-bake strawberry icebox cake. I’d never heard of such a thing, but basically, the refrigerator does all the work for you. I was tempted to make the 9″ x 12″ cake the recipe called for, but instead I halved the recipe so that Charlie and I would survive to enjoy the warm weather. I had most of the ingredients already (I left out the rosewater, because when the fuck else am I going to use rosewater?), but picked up some strawberries and whipping cream. The most time-consuming part of this recipe was slicing the strawberries. I took my knife and cutting board to the couch and worked while I watched Battlestar Galactica episodes.
A very sharp knife makes the thin slicing easy. Next, I measured out the whipping cream. I guess that, in order to make homemade whipped cream, all you have to do is whip the shit out of the cream for five minutes. My hand mixer is messed up and only runs on a very high speed, so I grew concerned while I whipped and whipped the cream. I don’t understand the chemistry of it, and I had no idea how whipping something that looked fairly liquid would make whipped cream, but eventually, lo and behold, the cream started to stiffen.
The recipe said to whip until the cream held “stiff peaks,” meaning if you scoop a bit out, the tip doesn’t flop over.
Miraculously, it worked. I added a little vanilla and powdered sugar, and I had an effing delicious homemade whipped cream. I’m in danger of becoming the sort of person who refuses to buy Cool Whip because it’s nowhere near as good as the homemade kind.
Next, I opened the package of graham crackers. I bought the reduced-fat kind because the word “whipping cream” was upsetting to me, health-wise. As if the two would balance each other out. (They didn’t.) I layered the graham crackers, whipped cream, then the strawberries.
By the time I reached the last two layers, I realized that I’d been too stingy with the whipped cream on the first two layers, and compensated by making a very top-heavy cake. To make the chocolate ganache, all you do is heat up a little of the whipping cream, mix it with some chocolate (I used semi-sweet baking chocolate), and drizzle it on. Even though I halved the rest of the recipe, I didn’t bother halving the amount of ganache.
Then, I slid the gorgeous thing into the refrigerator and left it there overnight. After breakfast the next morning, Charlie and I cut slices for our second breakfast. The cake had softened in the refrigerator overnight, so the graham crackers sliced easily with a butter knife. The ganache had hardened, making it look super fancy.
I cannot express to you how delicious it was. In the refrigerator, everything had softened into a sort of tiramisu-like texture, but without being mushy or soggy. It was light (despite the whipping cream) without being too sweet. The chocolate added just a little bit of richness without being too overwhelming. I never knew what made ganache in bakery desserts so tasty, but it turns out it’s the whipping cream.
I plan to take this to all future potlucks because it looks impressive and will make me look cool, but is SUPER easy to make. The cake didn’t last two days — I wasn’t even able to wait until after dinner the next day and ate it after lunch instead. You could probably make this with any fruit and it would be amazing — fresh nectarines or raspberries are next on my list. And next time I’ll know better and will make a full-sized cake.
Jill Kolongowski is a writer and freelance editor living in San Francisco. When she’s not cooking, running, or reading, she sometimes blogs at jillkolongowski.com. Follow her on Twitter at @jillkolongowski.