Why Icebox Cakes Have Truly Never Gone Out of Style

From 1920s housewives to TikTok creators, bakers continue to embrace this cold treat.

My first memory of an icebox cake is making a DIY version in my kitchen during summer vacation when I was nine. My native Indian gets extremely hot from April to June, and the only respite when it’s scorching outside is to dig into a bowl of shaved iced, a frozen alphonso mango, or, that particular summer, a DIY icebox cake.

The icebox cake is not an Indian summer norm like the other desserts, but I remember the first time I tried my hands (and luck) at combining cake with ice cream. My cousins and I gathered at the kitchen counter while the adults snoozed to create a dessert that one of my cousins declared as, “My mother learned it from a Martha Stewart cookbook and I learned it from her.”

Sure, what could go wrong with neatly stacking chocolate wafer biscuits on vanilla ice cream and loaves of market-bought chocolate cake? The stash was dusted with local chocolate and frozen for a few hours before being neatly cut and handed out to everyone on paper plates as a pre-dinner treat. And that’s when I knew: This is what summer crushes are made of.

“Icebox cakes first made an appearance in the kitchens of American housewives in the 1920s when the National Biscuit Company—now known as Nabisco—first put their famous chocolate wafers in the market and included a recipe for an icebox cake on the packaging,” says Jessie Sheehan, author of Icebox Cakes: Recipes for the Coolest Cakes in Town. In 2015, Sheehan put together this book of recipes that range from cakes made out of classic biscuits like Trader Joe’s Meyer Lemon Cookie Thins to Black Forest’s cherries.

Lemon Pucker Shortbread Icebox Cake
Lemon Pucker Shortbread Icebox Cake | Photo by Nico Schinco

Before NBC put icebox cakes on the back of their box or long before Sheehan wrote her cookbook, the first version of a cold layered dessert came around a century prior with Marie-Antoine Carême’s charlotte. He made a cold dessert inside a mould using lady fingers and custard, which was chilled and eaten as a whole.

“It does give off a lot of icebox cake vibes,” Sheehan confirms. Carême is a pioneering chef who is responsible for introducing the world to the elaborate French style of cooking known as grande cuisine, and the charlotte was one such creation.

Of course, the icebox cake became even more of a household staple in America during the ’40s and ’50s, with the rise of Baskin-Robbins and Carvel ice cream cakes. The dessert became so ubiquitous that it was being taught in culinary schools around the country.

“Back in culinary school, when we made genoise sponge for the first time, we had to cut the sponge into circles, and with the leftover cake, we were asked to make a family meal dessert,” says Solanki Roy, executive chef at Cut by Wolfgang Puck. “That was the first time I made an icebox cake. I layered it with vanilla ice cream, chocolate ganache, and cherry syrup. Topped it with loads of chocolate shavings.”

Roy is the former head pastry chef at Gaggan Anand, one of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and chef de partie at the three-Michelin starred Eleven Madison Park. She also has a deep affinity for icebox cakes.

What appeals to Solanki and most icebox cake fans of her generation is the simplicity of the dessert. This raw, DIY approach makes it a go-to favorite for our generation. “Gen Z likes it because it’s not intimidating to make,” she says. “It’s just a simple method of layering.” Besides the fact that icebox cake videos are often gorgeous and rank high on TikTok watchability.

The duo recommend combinations such as chocolate and malt, honey and ginger, graham crackers and marshmallows, hibiscus and lemon, and coconut and pandan. But before you get to your own experiment, here are some things to keep in mind.

Tips for making an icebox cake

According to our experts, don’t ever use soft cookies. Always use crispy ones, as you want them to absorb the cream or pudding but not turn mushy. Do whip your whipped cream to medium or stiff peaks and flavor your cream with zest, booze, or cocoa powder.

Pam spray the box so that it unmolds better or cling wrap it. Always let the cake rest for sometime before eating it. Soak the cakes in a simple syrup of your choice before you begin layering it, this will prevent drying.

Coconut and Chocolate Icebox Cake
Jessie Sheehan's Coconut and Chocolate Icebox Cake | Photo by Alice Gao

Coconut and Chocolate Icebox Cake Recipe by Jessie Sheehan

• 13-ounce can full-fat coconut milk
• ½ to 1 teaspoon almond extract
• ¾ cup confectioners' sugar
• 12 ounces heavy cream
• 1½ cups sweetened shredded coconut, toasted
• 9 ounces crisp chocolate wafer cookies
• ½ cup sliced almonds, toasted

1. Place the cans of coconut milk in the coldest spot in your refrigerator upside-down and leave them there for 24 hours. This will allow the coconut cream in the milk to solidify and separate from the liquid.
2. Line a 9-by-5-by-3-in loaf pan with plastic wrap that hangs slightly over the sides of the pan.
3. Flip the cans of coconut milk right-side up, open the cans, and, using a rubber spatula, carefully scrape the solid coconut cream into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Save the liquid for another purpose. Add the almond extract and confectioners' sugar, and whisk on medium speed until smooth and thick. Add the heavy cream and whisk on medium-high speed until the cream holds stiff peaks, about 2 minutes. Add the toasted coconut and fold it into the cream with a rubber spatula.
4. Using a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon, spread a thin layer of the whipped cream on the bottom of the lined pan. Cover as much of the cream as possible with a layer of wafers, filling any gaps with broken wafers, to create a solid layer of wafers.
5. Continue layering whipped cream and wafers until you run out or reach the top of the pan, ending with a layer of wafers. Gently cover the surface with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 to 8 hours, or preferably overnight. If you have whipped cream left over, store this in the refrigerator along with the cake.
6. Remove the cake from the refrigerator prior to serving and peel off the plastic wrap. Place a serving plate over the pan and invert the cake onto the plate. Carefully remove the pan and plastic wrap lining and, if using, thinly spread the remaining whipped cream over the sides and top of the cake. Re-whip the cream if it looks too soft to spread. Sprinkle the cake with the toasted almonds, lightly pressing them into the cake.
7. Using a serrated knife, cut the cake into slices and serve. The cake will keep, lightly wrapped with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

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Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor and the author of Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine and Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? Her work has appeared in leading publications such as The Guardian, Saveur and Food52 among others.