Tuesday, January 25, 2011

this is not a recipe

The nerve of me, going weeks without posting, then finally returning with this non-recipe of a recipe, this epitome of culinary laziness. And one that seems dreadfully off season considering the frigid weather we have been doomed with of late.

But, you see, I am so seduced by these types of recipes, these classics of American kitchen convenience. Growing up with two immigrant parents who raised us on a predominantly Chinese diet, these foods are the exotic, the unknown, and are the joy to discover as I've grown up and moved away from that home. It was not until just a couple of years ago that I had ever even heard of monkey bread, or tater tot casserole, or chess pie. I remember the revelation of rhubarb when I first tasted a pie sent to my friend by his mother while we were at camp in Michigan. Even those American classics that my parents attempted to adopt into our menu - meatloaf, spaghetti, burgers - were always tweaked with Asian flavors. Not to say the tweaks weren't great, they invariably were. I grew up loving my mother's meatloaf, and have always been deeply disappointed with any truly American meatloaf I've come across. The first time I tasted broccoli cooked by a friend's mother, I understood why most children hated what had always been my favorite vegetable. But these American classics have always appealed to me, and especially those that came into being during the push towards convenience food.

The ice box cake is a double whammy of an American classic. Just the name alone, "ice box cake", has the quaintness of the past. How far back into our history do you have to go to find people who called it an ice box? Though the real origin of ice box cake dates back at least to the 1930's, the cake that most Americans know and love is a 1950's revival of the classic. My first introduction to the ice box cake was as recently as a year or two ago and was the version popularized by Nabisco, on their packages of chocolate wafers. I've never even tasted a Nabisco chocolate wafer, apparently they are not so easy to find in stores these days, but I understand they taste like a thin oreo without the cream. The cake is no-bake, perfect for hot summer weather, and I was stunned when I learned how simple it was to make. Make up a bunch of whipped cream, maybe sweeten it a touch and a dash of vanilla. Make layers of chocolate wafers and alternate with whipped cream. Stick it in the fridge for a few hours. Voila. Cake.

If you think about it for a moment, you realize that it is silly and lazy, but genius all the same. How could it not be good? My favorite cakes are iced with whipped cream anyway. The cream softens the wafers until they are basically the texture of cake. And the best part, what I consider the ultimate 1950's coup of convenience recipes, is when you slice the cake and reveal fantastic zebra stripes, that look so much fancier than it has any right to look.

And the bittersweet side of the story this time is that I never did find Nabisco wafers, and instead used the Swedish Anna cookies, which come in such a great variety of flavors that I look forward to making plenty of ice box cakes come summer. Why is not finding Nabisco wafers bittersweet? Well, because for the past four years, I've worked at the Chelsea Market, the building that once housed the original National Biscuit Company factory, Nabisco. And as I walked out of the factory for the last time on Friday, bidding farewell to a hugely significant chapter of my life and anxious about a new adventure, a new step, and new world at my doorstep, I wondered how many of those blasted wafers were made within those walls back in the day and how ridiculous it is that I can't find them in any store in NYC.

Non-recipe after the jump:


4 cups heavy whipping cream
4 tbsp confectioners sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 9-ounce boxes of Nabisco chocolate wafers, or 3 5.25-ounce boxes of Anna chocolate wafer cookies

Whip the whipped cream, sugar and vanilla extract to soft peaks. On a large serving plate, lay down 7 wafer cookies in a circle, placing an 8th in the middle. Spread the cookies with 3/4 cup of the whipped cream. Repeat the layers of cookies and whipped cream until the cake is as tall as you like. Finish with a layer of whipped cream. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight. I crushed up all of the broken cookie pieces and sprinkled them on top for decoration, shaved chocolate is also a nice garnish. Any garnish should be added just before serving.


chen.esseff said...

Love it! It's so beautiful too. I'm reminded of a sacripantina...from my local Italian bakery. Yum!

Anonymous said...

At Christmas I usually make one of these with gingerbread cookies. It's so delicious with some cinnamon tea...or hot chocolate with a little cinnamon sprinkled over it.