My birthday is at the end of April, after Easter and following three other birthdays in my extended family this month. I bake cakes for their birthdays, but mine is usually an ice cream cake from the local dairy bar. (This is by no means a complaint; I love ice cream cakes.)
But there was a year when my sons, who were quite young at the time, wanted to help make my birthday cake. After a month of frosting, I couldn't bear the thought of another buttercream. And, what's more, at their toddling ages I knew most of the work was going to fall to me anyhow.
Enter the icebox cake to save the day, or at least fulfill their request. An icebox cake is a layered arrangement of cream and cookies, chilled and left to set. The magic happens in that chilling time – the cookies swell and soften, turning sponge-like, and the cream thickens to something lusher than it was before. It is notionally similar to a trifle or a tiramisu, but cakier than either of those. Truly, an icebox cake is a no-bake dessert that feels like a celebration.
It's also a fine thing for a throw-together Easter dessert. While the season may have us brainwashed into thoughts of berries and bounty, the fact is that most of us are still a few months away from local produce. So, use frozen, and invoke the spirit of renewal even if we're not there yet. Here I've used raspberries, as their bright acidity provides a needed counterpoint to the richness of everything else. That said, if you are lucky enough to find some forced rhubarb, a thick compote of the fuchsia stalks would be a treat.
Instead of a traditional whipped cream filling, I opt for a diplomat cream, which is whipped cream bulked up with pastry cream. The pastry cream is basically a stove-top pudding, and can be made by hand or using a stand mixer. If it's your first time, a mixer frees both hands for pouring the hot milk into the egg yolks, but it is not essential.
Traditionally, icebox cakes are made with vanilla or chocolate wafer cookies, but I grew up with graham cracker icebox cakes and I stand by the preference to this day. Graham crackers allow for optimal edge-to-edge coverage and, after sitting overnight, their crumb more closely resembles that of a thin cake.
To make the cake without any cooking at all, make a lemon cheesecake-ish version with 2 cups mascarpone cream in place of the pastry cream in the filling (you may want to slip in a bit of vanilla bean and extra sugar), and use store-bought lemon curd instead of the raspberry sauce.
Servings: Makes one 8-inch square cake
Almond pastry cream
2 cups milk
1 vanilla bean, split in half
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
A good pinch medium-grained kosher salt
1/8 tsp almond extract
1 pound raspberries, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
A good pinch medium-grained kosher salt
1/2 tsp rosewater, optional
2 cups whipping cream, divided
45 honey graham crackers (the single kind)
1/4 cup icing sugar, plus extra for garnish
A pinch medium-grained kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
Ground pistachios, optional
Start by making the pastry cream. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk over medium-high heat. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, stir into the milk, then pop in the pod as well. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then set aside to steep for a few minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until pale, fluffy and thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in the cornstarch and salt until smooth. While whisking constantly, pour in the hot milk in a slow, steady stream. Continue whisking until completely combined.
Strain the mixture back into the saucepan, then bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking all the while and making sure to get into the edges of the pan. Cook until thickened and the custard bubbles at its centre. Continue to cook, still whisking well, for one minute more.
Off the heat, stir in the almond extract. Scrape the pastry cream into a bowl, then press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until well chilled and firm, about 3 hours.
To make the raspberry sauce, put three-quarters of the raspberries in a medium saucepan with the sugar, lemon juice and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit falls apart and the juices thicken, 12 to 15 minutes.
Tumble in the reserved berries, fold them through the sauce and cook for another minute or so.
Carefully remove the raspberries to a blender and process until smooth. Push the purée through a sieve back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring to the gentlest of simmers, stirring all the while. Cook until it becomes sumptuous and thick with a glossy look, around 10 minutes more. At this point you want the sauce just shy of jammy-ness, slightly thicker than maple syrup but not all the way to hot fudge.
Sieve again, this time to a clean bowl, and stir in the rosewater if using. Taste, adding more lemon juice if needed, then cover and chill in the refrigerator until needed.
To assemble the cake, line an 8-by-8-inch metal cake pan with a cross of plastic wrap, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip 3/4 cup of well-chilled heavy cream until the cream begins to hold soft peaks.
Give the chilled pastry cream a few stirs to loosen, then fold it into the whipped cream to make diplomat cream.
Spread a small amount of the diplomat cream on the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Arrange 9 crackers on top in a 3-by-3 grid. Spoon one-quarter of the cream on top of the crackers. Use an offset spatula to coax the cream into an even layer. Splatter 2 tablespoons of the raspberry sauce over the cream. It can be left à la Jackson Pollock, spread neatly or marbled into the cream. (You will use a generous 1/2 cup of the sauce for the entire cake.)
Top with another layer of graham crackers, followed by a quarter of the remaining cream, and 2 more tablespoons of sauce. Continue stacking until you have five layers of crackers and four layers of diplomat cream and raspberry sauce. Hold back just enough cream to cover the last layer of crackers.
Loosely cover the cake with a piece of plastic wrap, then draw the overhanging plastic wrap from the sides up to cover the edges. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to two days.
About 1 hour before serving, remove the cake from the fridge and peel back the plastic wrap. Invert the cake onto a serving plate, removing the remaining plastic wrap. Smooth out the sides with an offset spatula and pop the cake in the freezer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip the remaining 1 1/4 cups well-chilled heavy cream. When the cream begins to thicken, sift in the icing sugar, salt and vanilla extract. With the mixer set to medium-high, whip the cream until it holds firm peaks, being careful not to overbeat.
Take the cake out of the freezer and gently spread a thin layer of the whipped cream on top to cover. Chill the finished cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Dust with additional icing sugar and ground pistachios if desired, then serve with the remaining raspberry sauce on the side.