Right about the time you pull the white sandals and beach gear out of the closet, big, easy, and delicious party desserts also come into high style. What are you taking to that family potluck or graduation party this month? May I suggest the easiest yet most impressive dessert I know? It doesn't even require an oven!
The icebox cake is a no-bake confection that needs literally no cooking or baking, and yet it yields what you would swear are slices of tender cake layers, filled with airy whipped cream and fresh summer fruit. Come see how to make one; you don't even need a recipe.
I grew up in a very large family, as I've told you before, and so everything in the kitchen was done on a larger scale. We never made dessert in pans smaller than 9x13-inches; easy, generous dishes were prized.
I learned icebox cakes from my mother and grandmother, who both made them frequently for big parties — and why not? They feed a crowd, and they're so easy. You simply layer whole graham crackers (or another crisp, not-too-sweet cookie) with whipped cream and thinly-sliced fruit. No baking required.
This may sound a little odd — crunchy graham crackers? Where's the cake? But that's the genius of the icebox cake. In the refrigerator, the crackers soften just enough to be tender and flaky, melding with the cream and fruit into a dessert that resembles a fancy layered torte, with thin layers of cake.
I adore icebox cakes, in all their Midwestern glory. (I even wrote a cookbook about them, and other no-bake desserts.) I love how the nutty graham crackers contrast with the rich cream and bright fruit. I look for crackers that aren't too sweet and that have as much whole grain flour as possible. As far as filling goes, almost anything goes. You can use plain fresh strawberries and bananas as I do here, or other thinly-sliced soft fruit, such as mangoes or raspberries. Or branch out from fruit entirely and use a tart jam instead.
I also appreciate that these let me turn just a few ingredients into a gloriously delicious and easy dessert for a whole table of friends — all without turning on the oven. Zero heat, very little work, plenty of happy people. Isn't that the best?
What You Need
3 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 pounds fresh fruit, peeled and sliced (about 4 cups)
25 to 30 graham crackers (from about 4 sleeves)
2/3 cup chopped nuts or additional fruit, for garnish
Stand mixer, hand mixer, or large whisk
9x13-inch baking dish
Beat the cream until it holds stiff peaks. Place the cream, powdered sugar, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. (Alternatively, use a large bowl and electric hand mixer or whisk.) Beat on low speed, then high speed, until the cream holds stiff peaks.
Divide the cream into 4 parts. Use a spatula to evenly divide the cream into 4 quadrants.
Smear a spoonful of cream in the bottom of the baking dish. Smear just a small spoonful of the cream evenly in a 9x13-inch baking dish. This will hold your first layer of graham crackers in place.
Cover the bottom with graham crackers. Place a layer of graham crackers in the dish, breaking them as needed to fit into a single tight, even layer.
Spread whipped cream on top of the crackers. Gently spread 1/4 of the cream (one whole quadrant) evenly on the crackers.
Spread 1/3 of the fruit on the cream. Place 1/3 of the fruit (about 1 1/3 cups) evenly on top of the cream.
Top with a second layer of crackers. Cover the fruit with a second full layer of crackers.
Top with cream and fruit. Top this second layer of crackers with another 1/4 of the cream and another 1/3 (1 1/3 cups) of the fruit.
Top with a third layer of crackers. Cover the fruit with a third full layer of crackers.
Top with cream and fruit. Top with another 1/4 of the cream and the remaining fruit. At this point you'll have 3 layers of graham crackers, 3 layers of cream, and 3 layers of fruit.
Top with a final layer of crackers and cream. Add a fourth layer of crackers and the remaining cream. Spread gently into an even layer or swirl a decorative pattern into the cream.
Garnish the cake. Sprinkle the chopped nuts or fruit on top of the cake.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight. The cake is ready when a knife inserted in the center goes in easily and comes out with soft crumbs. Refrigerate any leftovers.
Storage: Icebox cake is best eaten within 2 days. It does get soggy after more than two or three days in the fridge, especially if very juicy fruit is used.
Fruit choices: Any kind of soft, juicy fruit is very good. Try thinly-sliced banana and strawberries, or kiwi, mango, chopped raspberries and blueberries, or peaches.