When Bobbie Crew was growing up, her favorite treat was her mom’s lemon icebox pie.
The pie was far from fancy: It consisted of a vanilla wafer crust cupping a cool pool of custard-like filling made with sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice. It didn’t bake in the oven — it set in the refrigerator.
Crew, who lives in Lee’s Summit and blogs about vegan food at TheVeganCrew.com, now makes a dairy-free version of her mom’s lemon icebox pie with soy milk.
“It’s very silky and smooth,” Crew says. And like all icebox pies, it’s exceptionally sweet on hot summer days.
According to the book “Vintage Cakes” by Julie Richardson (Ten Speed Press, 2012), icebox pies and cakes gained popularity between 1930 and 1950, when refrigerators became fixtures of American kitchens. Most were made by topping a simple crust with a no-bake filling, then chilling the dessert in the refrigerator or freezer for several hours.
Because they’re easy to assemble, icebox pies are often considered “cheat” recipes by serious pie bakers, says Meg Heriford, owner and operator of Ladybird Diner in Lawrence.
“I’m totally into icebox pie,” Heriford says, “but it’s not really pie. It’s chilled dessert in a shell.”
Heriford makes a mean chocolate icebox pie, but her favorite recipe is “Millionaire Pie,” an everything-but-the-kitchen sink dessert made by mixing whipped cream with cherries, nuts, coconut, pineapple and canned mandarin oranges.
Heriford is considering adding Millionaire Pie to the menu when Ladybird Diner reopens later this summer (the restaurant closed in March to repair damage caused by a fire).
Kansas City’s Cleaver & Cork restaurant, in the Power & Light District, serves peach icebox pie ($6) made by whipping cream together with cream cheese, sugar and vanilla, then freezing the filling in a crushed pretzel crust. A jam-like layer of sweetened stone fruit sits on top.
“It’s a take on a dessert my mom used to make,” says culinary director Alex Pope, explaining that her version topped a creamy vanilla base with fresh strawberries.
Most old-school icebox pie and cake recipes are seductively simple, but in the new book “Icebox Cakes” (Chronicle Books), you’ll find multi-step recipes that feature homemade cookies, graham crackers and wafers.
New York-based co-author Jessie Sheehan developed many of the recipes with her favorite childhood treats in mind: The Marshmallow-Peanut Butter icebox cake was inspired by Fluffernutter sandwiches, and Peppermint-Chocolate is a nod to Baskin-Robbins’ mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Sheehan says icebox cakes are always a hit with her dinner guests, and they make entertaining easy because they’re made hours or even a day ahead of time.
“I like to get a lot done before anyone arrives,” she says. “I love these cakes because that aspect of the dinner party is taken off my plate.”
Sheehan says icebox cakes also freeze well. She recommends letting them set up in the refrigerator first so that the dry components (cookies, wafers, graham crackers) have time to absorb moisture from the filling. Icebox cakes made with homemade cookies take longer to set than cakes made with store-bought cookies, she adds. Most of the recipes in “Icebox Cakes” are best when they chill in the fridge for 24 hours.
Some cakes are even better after two days in the fridge, Sheehan says, “but I wouldn’t go longer than two days.”
The first recipe listed in “Icebox Cakes” nods to a Nabisco recipe from the 1930s. The “Old School” tastes like a decadent cake version of an Oreo cookie and is made by layering chocolate wafers with whipped cream. Sheehan says it’s right up her alley.
“I’m not into fancy desserts,” Sheehan says. “I don’t want a flourless cake with a drizzle of raspberry; I want these old-school cakes.”
Icebox cake tips
▪ Icebox cakes are best made a day in advance, but they don’t last long after you cut into them. Most should be eaten within two to three days, Jessie Sheehan says.
▪ Never layer a pudding-based icebox cake with cookies, Sheehan says, because the cookies will get mushy. “Cookies go with whipped cream,” she says, “and pudding goes with graham crackers or ladyfingers.”
▪ Decorate icebox cake right before serving or the toppings (banana slices, chocolate chunks, etc.) might sink into the soft top and make the dessert look droopy.
▪ While it’s possible to stabilize whipped cream and store it in the fridge, freshly whipped cream makes for the best icebox cakes, Sheehan says.
▪ To make individual icebox cakes, layer ingredients in a Mason jar, chill, then serve the jarred desserts in a bucket of ice at a party or picnic.
▪ For recipes that require a springform pan, remove the outer ring just before serving. Don’t use a springform pan to contain icebox cakes with runny pudding and caramel layers: The structure could collapse.
Blueberry Refrigerator Pie
Berry lovers will flip over this deep purple pie, which incorporates ricotta cheese and a hint of lemon.
Makes one 9-inch deep-dish pie
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 pint blueberries, plus 1/2 pint for topping
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder or cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Grated zest of one lemon
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups ricotta cheese, at room temperature
Graham cracker crust, store-bought or homemade
Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan. Add the blueberries and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, until the berries begin to release their juices.
Mix together the sugar and starch in a small bowl. Stir into the blueberry mixture, then add the lemon juice and zest and cook 5 minutes longer, until the mixture thickens and becomes jammy.
Remove from the heat and stir in the cream cheese and ricotta.
Transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree for about 1 minute, until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Pour the blueberry and cheese mixture into the prepared crust. Arrange the half-pint of blueberries evenly over the surface of the pie, then refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. Serve chilled.
Per serving, based on 8: 454 calories (52 percent from fat), 27 grams total fat (14 grams saturated), 66 milligrams cholesterol, 44 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 310 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Source: “A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies” (Lark; 2012)
Peanut Butter Pie
It doesn’t get much easier than this silky smooth and party-perfect recipe for peanut butter pie, which tastes a bit like Nutter Butter cookies.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup peanut butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream, whipped (about 3 cups)
1 9-inch graham cracker crust, store-bought or homemade
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup
Place the cream cheese in a large bowl and beat with a hand mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy. Add the sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter and beat until well blended. Stir in the lemon juice and vanilla. Fold in the whipped cream. Pour into the graham cracker crust. Drizzle with chocolate syrup, then refrigerate for several hours.
Per serving, based on 6: 953 calories (60 percent from fat), 66 grams total fat (28 grams saturated), 118 milligrams cholesterol, 77 grams carbohydrates, 22 grams protein, 642 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Source: “Southern Cooking for Company” (Thomas Nelson; 2015)
Short on time? Use whipped topping instead of whipped cream to make this dramatic and decadent dessert, which can also be served frozen. Look for the chocolate wafers in the ice cream toppings section of the grocery store.
Makes 8-10 servings
2 cups heavy whipping cream
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
11/2 9-ounce packages chocolate wafers (60 wafers)
1 4-ounce semisweet chocolate baking bar, finely chopped
1/4 cup hot fudge sauce, warmed
2 1.4-ounce chocolate-covered toffee candy bars, chopped
Beat whipping cream at high speed with an electric mixer until foamy; gradually add powdered sugar, beating until soft peaks form.
Spoon whipped cream into a zip-top plastic freezer bag. Snip one corner of the bag to make a hole about 1 inch in diameter.
Arrange one-third of the chocolate wafers in the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan; pipe one-third of the whipped cream over the wafers, spreading evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle with one-third of the semisweet chocolate. Repeat layers twice, then cover and chill for 24 hours.
Drizzle with fudge sauce and sprinkle with toffee candy bars just before serving.
Per serving, based on 8: 591 calories (55 percent from fat), 37 grams total fat (20 grams saturated), 93 milligrams cholesterol, 63 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 335 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Source: “The Southern Pie Book” (Oxmoor House; 2013)
Red Velvet Icebox Cake
Homemade red velvet wafers and cinnamon-flecked whipped cream make this red velvet recipe perfect for overachieving icebox cake-makers. Store-bought wafers will also work, according to “Icebox Cakes” co-author Jessie Sheehan.
Makes 12 to 15 servings
For the red velvet wafers (makes about 60)
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon red food coloring
For the cinnamon-cream cheese whipped cream (makes about 7 cups)
1 1/2 cups cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups heavy cream
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus more for decorating
To make the wafers, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the granulated sugar, butter and 2 teaspoons vanilla on medium-low speed until slightly fluffy, about 2 minutes. Be careful not to overbeat. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
In a small bowl, whisk the milk, corn syrup and food coloring to combine. Add the milk mixture to the butter-sugar mixture with the mixer on medium-low speed; beat until just combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl with the rubber spatula.
Add the flour mixture all at once to the mixer bowl. With the mixer on low speed, beat until the dough just begins to pull away from the bottom of the bowl and forms a cohesive mass. Scrape the sides of the bowl to fully incorporate all the ingredients.
Divide the dough in half and place each half on a sheet of plastic wrap. Loosely wrap the dough and form each half into a log about 2 inches wide. Roll the logs along the counter, still wrapped in plastic wrap, in order to shape into perfect cylinders. Tighten the plastic wrap around the logs and freeze them for at least 2 hours, or overnight. If you have trouble forming the soft dough into logs, form the dough into a disk (or loose log shape), wrap it in plastic wrap, and place in the freezer for about 20 minutes, just until it is cold enough to shape into the necessary log. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Once frozen, unwrap one of the logs and use a sharp paring or chef’s knife to cut it into thin slices about 1/8-inch thick; rotate the log as you slice, or the side sitting on the cutting surface will flatten.
Arrange the slices about 1 inch apart on one of the prepared baking sheets and place in the freezer for at least 10 minutes. Repeat with the second dough log and prepared baking sheet. If you need more room to fit all your dough slices, simply arrange them on additional sheets of parchment paper, layer the dough-covered papers one on top of the other on the second baking sheet in the freezer, and switch them out as you bake off each batch. (You can also wrap the baking sheets in plastic wrap and freeze the rounds for up to 1 week.)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Place one baking sheet of the frozen dough rounds in the oven and bake until they appear dry, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through the baking time. Using a stiff metal or plastic spatula, immediately press down lightly on each cookie to flatten it. Let the wafers cool on the baking sheet for 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. The wafers should be very crispy when cooled. If they are not, place them back in the oven for 1 to 2 minutes more. Repeat to bake the additional sheets of dough rounds.
Store the wafers in an airtight container as soon as they have cooled. They will remain crispy at room temperature, tightly sealed, for about 24 hours. Freezing the baked wafers in a resealable plastic bag also works well, for up to 1 month. There is no need to defrost the wafers before assembling your cake.
To make the whipped cream, refrigerate the bowl of a stand mixer and the whisk attachment (or a medium metal bowl and beaters from a hand mixer) until quite cold, about 15 minutes. Once chilled, remove the bowl and whisk from the refrigerator, add the cream cheese, and whip it on medium speed until smooth. Add the cream and continue to whip on medium speed until the cream is incorporated. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla and cinnamon and, on medium-high speed, whip the cream mixture until it holds stiff peaks that stand upright when the whisk is raised (the stiffer the cream, the more support it will provide the wafers in your cake). Use it immediately.
Line a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap that hangs slightly over the pan sides. Using a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon, spread a generous layer of the whipped cream on the bottom of the lined pan. Cover as much of the cream as possible with a layer of the wafers, filling any gaps with broken wafers. The pieces should touch. The goal is a solid layer of wafers.
Continue layering whipped cream and wafers until you run out or reach the top of the pan, ending with whipped cream. Gently cover the cake with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 24 hours. Peel the plastic wrap from the cake, place the serving platter over the cake, and invert the cake onto the platter. Carefully remove the pan and plastic-wrap lining and lightly dust the cake with ground cinnamon. Using a knife, cut it into slices and serve.
Per serving, based on 12: 618 calories (63 percent from fat), 44 grams total fat (27 grams saturated), 145 milligrams cholesterol, 52 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 203 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Source: “Icebox Cakes” (Chronicle Books; 2015)