Icebox cakes, cool layers of creamy filling sandwiched between cookies—or, in some recipes, cake—are a slice of nostalgia. Around since the invention of the refrigerator, these desserts include everything from a sophisticated charlotte russe (a mold neatly lined with sponge cake and filled with Bavarian cream) to Nabisco’s Famous Wafer Roll (chocolate wafer cookies spread with whipped cream and laid out into a log). What both of these have in common is that they’re not baked: the filling sets in the refrigerator, and the cake is served cold, which makes icebox cakes great make-ahead desserts.
Cookies—crumbs or whole—set the stage
Give the cake shape with a mold
At the restaurant, I made the lemon-caramel cake as individual servings using a round metal mold. A springform pan allows you to do the same on a larger scale; the outside ring pops off to reveal the many layers of this showstopper of a cake. For the chocolate wafer icebox cake, I use a loaf pan. This shape not only makes it easier to line up the cookies, but it also makes for very dramatic slices. But because the sides of the pan aren’t removable, you should line the pan with plastic wrap, which will enable you to unmold the cake after it has set.
Pat down the crumbs to make an even layer. For the cakes that use cookie crumbs—easily ground in the food processor or crushed with a rolling pin—be sure to pat the crumbs down in an even layer. The best tool here is your hands.
Use a spatula to distribute the filling over the crumbs, being careful not to pile it all in one place. If you have to spread it too much, you’ll pull up some of the crumb layer. A few crumbs mixed into the filling aren’t the end of the world, but too many take away from the distinct look of the layers.
Chill, slice carefully, and serve
Though these cakes look grand, they’re not difficult to make. In fact, the longest part of the process is the chilling. The cakes need at least a day for the filling to set and for the cookies to soften.
Two of the cakes set up in the fridge, but I always freeze the lemon-caramel cake so that the lemon mousse doesn’t melt when the meringue topping is browned under the broiler later. You want to slice this one while it’s still quite firm; that way, the layers will stay perfectly intact. It tastes great slightly frozen, so go ahead and serve it on the hard side. If you’d like it softer—more cold than frozen—slice the cake, plate it, wait a bit, and then serve. The refrigerated cakes should be sliced just out of the cold for best results.
A warm knife makes a clean slice. Icebox cakes can be a challenge to slice neatly. For best results, warm the knife under hot water and dry it off. Make a slice, clean the knife, and warm it again for the next slice.