This is not a holiday dessert post. Rather, this is a post about the woman I love. Oh, it is also about dessert, but it’s really about my dear, dear wife. And while you could make an argument that her birthday should be a national holiday, it’s not.
Icebox cake is a delicious dessert, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. But despite the word “cake” in the name, I didn’t do any baking. I think you’ll forgive its inclusion in a baking blog for a couple of reasons though. The first reason is it’s delicious. The second reason has more to do with sentiment than taste. I made it for my wife’s birthday, as part of her birthday extravaganza.
Why a birthday extravaganza, and what is a birthday extravaganza anyway? As to the why, birthdays are a special thing for her. I know they are for everyone, but even though she wouldn’t admit it, I know they’re particularly special to her. Plus, she had been having a bit of a hard time leading up to her birthday, so I wanted to do something fun for her to take her mind off things.
What did the extravaganza entail besides the cake? There were many things, and I’ll let you in on a few. I made a big beautiful “Happy Birthday” sign and hung it up after she left for work. (Many months later as I’m writing this, it’s still hanging up. When people come over, if they don’t know when her actual birthday is, they assume it’s recent, and they wish her a happy birthday. It’s kinda fun.) I created a custom version of a favorite game of hers and had it specially printed. I also organized a surprise birthday dinner for her with a bunch of her closest friends.
Except for maybe the cake, the dinner was actually the biggest part. Her birthday often falls on a holiday weekend, and this year was no exception. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to have a birthday celebration. She thought no one would be around because it was a holiday weekend. And she particularly didn’t think it would work last minute. She also said no surprises.
But I knew she would want to celebrate with people. So I secretly polled her friends to find out when they were around that weekend. There were a lot of emails. There was a spreadsheet. There were clandestine arrangements at one of her favorite neighborhood restaurants.
The date that worked best for everyone was the actual day of her birthday. The two of us normally go out to dinner that night anyway, so I just asked her if it was okay if I made the reservations. She said okay, and I did. But besides keeping the restaurant secret, the other secret was that it was reservations for 12, not 2.
Before we headed out to dinner that night it started raining really hard. She thought maybe we should skip going. I encouraged her to go by saying that it would be fun. (We had this same discussion several times on the way to the restaurant.) I also asked if I could give her a present before dinner. It was a happy birthday tiara. (She likes tiaras.) I suggested that she bring it.
We eventually got to the restaurant. I gave them my name and they led us to our table. No surprise there. But the surprise came soon after, as she was utterly shocked to see a table filled with her friends. She had no idea. She thought it was a joke or a dream or something. It took her till probably half way through dinner until it finally sank in that it was real. Well, it was real. And it was fabulous. She’s got an awesome group of friends who love her dearly and celebrated the heck out of her.
We were there for a while. And after making one more stop, we decided to head home. I had mentioned that I made dessert. She didn’t know what kind, but she was intrigued.
Icebox cake is actually a very simple recipe, but she’s been hinting at me to make it for her for a while now. Why, you might ask? It’s her favorite. Her dad used to make it for her birthday every year growing up. In fact, one time when we were visiting her parents, she arranged for him to teach me how to make it.
Before then, and probably more so since then, she’s been hinting at me to make it, subtly and not so subtly. Sometimes I’m a little dense with these things, and it hadn’t happened yet. So the fact that I made it for her this year was an even bigger surprise.
When you live with someone, being able to surprise each other can be challenging. This even more so, as it involved time in the kitchen without her around. I’m usually up later than her, but the kitchen is right near our bedroom, so I couldn’t do it at night without risking waking her up. Luckily, the day of her birthday I got out early from work. I rushed home and started making it. I was just finished cleaning up as she walked through the front door.
As I mentioned, the recipe is not that difficult to make. Actually, the most difficult part was finding the cookies. I had seen them around the neighborhood a few years ago (when I last thought I would make it), so I assumed I would see them again. I was wrong. I went to a bunch of different places (grocery stores, small markets, drug stores, etc.), but no luck.
I almost went with some alternative ones I found in the neighborhood. They were similar in style, but they were chocolate mint. I thought I would give it one more shot, but these were my backup just in case. I finally found them in an independent grocery near where I work. (Yay Morton Williams!)
As long as I was making it, I decided to go whole hog and make double the recipe on the box. However, when it was all said and done, it was so big I had to put it in a large baking dish. A plate would not have worked.
Ahead of time I had looked up the recipe, just to get an idea of what was involved. Online, I couldn’t find the recipe from the box, but I found tons of different variations. Some people use sugar in the whipped cream, as it turns out my father in law does, but I just followed what was on the box as I didn’t have his instructions handy.
Because I made a double batch, there was so much whipped cream that I needed two bowls for all of it. So I made it in two batches and I added extra vanilla (another couple tsps) because I felt like it needed it. I hadn’t made whipped cream in a while, so I kinda forgot how long it takes. It’s not difficult, but you have stay at it for a while.
The recipe is really as simple as the instructions on the box say it is. Maybe if I’m feeling more ambitious someday, I’ll do what Smitten Kitchen does and make the cookies from scratch. It looks fun, I wouldn’t have to schlep all over creation to find them, and as an extra bonus, I would actually be baking something for the recipe.
So that night, I presented the cake to her. She cried when she saw that I had made it for her. I hadn’t expected that, and she definitely hadn’t expected me to make the cake. Maybe she thought that with all the surprises so far, there wouldn’t be anymore. Maybe she thought if I hadn’t made it already that I wasn’t going to make it. (Kind of like how it took me so long to propose, she thought I wouldn’t.) In any case, she was truly touched. And when she next spoke to her dad, she proudly told him that I had made it. The tradition was now carried on.
Oh, and the cake was delicious. When we had people over the next day, she shared some of the cake with them. It was thoroughly enjoyed all around. I know my wife would also want me to say that it got better every day, as the cookies and whipped cream absorbed each other’s flavors and the cookies slowly turned to mush.
It’s kinda hard to believe that something so simple can be so good, but it really is. I had always kinda wondered what this whole icebox cake thing was about, and now I know. If you have a chance sometime, give it a shot. It really is that simple, and it really is that good.
I know there are lots of variations out there, so if you have a favorite version, please share it in the comments below. Also, since the cookies are so hard to find, if you have a good source for them (either locally or online) that you wouldn’t mind sharing, feel free to mention that as well.
Recipe courtesy of Nabisco.*
* The recipe I used was the one on the back of the box. After much searching online, I finally found the exact same version on Nabisco’s website, which is much easier to link to than a box.