I’m a firm believer that birthdays should be special. I think we generally fail to appreciate the people around us. So on people’s birthdays I like to take advantage of the opportunity and show people that I’m thinking of them and that I think they’re special. There are lots of ways of doing this. Obviously telling them is the most straightforward way. But I also like to bake for them.
If I know someone well, I often have a good idea of what to make them for their birthday. My wife’s favorite cake is icebox cake. I’ve made it for her birthday a couple of times so far. (You can see previous posts here and here.). Because it’s her favorite cake, she never gets tired of it. But even so, every year, I try to kick it up a notch. The first year, making it was a big deal. The second year, I baked the chocolate wafers that make up the cake, instead of buying them. This year is no different. What I did to kick it up a notch this year was two-fold. First, I made a giant icebox cake. And second, I actually made two cakes. (I’ll tell you about the second one next week.)
What made this year’s cake more complicated was that her whole birthday was a surprise. It started with a surprise party. Well, actually it started with nothing. At first, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for her birthday, so we didn’t plan anything. But as it got closer to her birthday it became clear that she wanted to celebrate with her friends. It seemed too late to her to throw something together at the last-minute. But I was undeterred, and I put together a last-minute surprise party. It was a little bit of a challenge – I won’t say how much, but there was a spreadsheet involved – but in the end we got a bunch of people together.
And since the party was a surprise, I decided to make the dessert a surprise too. I bought the ingredients ahead of time, and I hid them. The small container of milk was hidden at the very back of the fridge. I got shelf stable whipping cream and hid it in another room. Everything else was hidden in plain sight. I also had to find time to make the cake while she wasn’t around. That’s difficult when you live with someone. So I took off work on the day of her birthday, which had the added benefit of making sure I got home in time to celebrate. I spent a good chunk of the day baking the cookies and putting the cakes together.
That’s because I needed to make a lot of cookies. (In case you don’t know what icebox cake is and you’re confused about why I’m referring to cookies in a cake recipe: icebox cake is made of chocolate wafer cookies which are slathered in whipped cream and put in the fridge. After several hours, the whipped cream turns the cookies into a cake-like consistency.) Because I was making two cakes, and one of them needed to be party size, I made a double recipe of the cookies. This is roughly equivalent to 4 boxes of the original wafer cookies.
Making the cookie dough involves mixing it in the food processor. After mixing, I kneaded it all together on freezer paper. Then I rolled the dough into a log and refrigerated it for about 90 minutes wrapped in that same freezer paper. For ease of measuring and mixing, as well as not overloading the food processor, I did it in two batches and repeated these same steps over for the second batch. (The second batch was in the fridge a little over an hour.)
After chilling, I took the logs out of the fridge to cut them into cookies, but in between cutting each batch of cookies, I put the dough back in the fridge. The freezer paper was easier to cut on than the foil I used previously, and refrigerating it in between sheets of cookies helped keep the dough the right consistency. I cut them as thin as I could. Since I was just eyeballing it, the rolls were a little uneven, but I reshaped them as I cut them, and re-rolled any bits I had cut off.
I did one sheet of cookies. Then I did the second and put it in at the half way point when I rotated the first sheet and moved it to the other rack. Then I pulled the Silpat, with the cookies still on it, off the baking sheet and let them cool on a cooling rack. I then used the baking sheet to prepare the next batch.
I kept them in rotation. I started off with two baking sheets with Silpats on them, but when it became clear I needed a third baking sheet, I started using parchment paper as well. Between cooking, cooling, and prepping, I kept the three baking sheets in constant use. It was a pretty efficient operation.
I baked them for 12 minutes. I wasn’t exact on the sizing, so while they all got cooked, some of them got a little overcooked. I ended up making 138 cookies. I was expecting 160, but I didn’t measure that carefully.
I ended up using around 100 or so cookies for this cake for the party. A regular cake recipe uses 40 cookies, but I needed it to be bigger, as I was expecting between 15-20 people at the surprise party. It took a little longer than I expected to put it together, so it only got to sit in the fridge for about 4 hours before the party.
One reason that it took a little longer was that I had a slight mistake as I was making the whipped cream. I wasn’t paying close enough attention, and I let it go too far. It turned into something closer to buttercream. So, I had to run out and get more cream. Once I got that settled, it was pretty easy to put the cake together. In a moment of inspiration, I spelled out “Happy Bday” in chocolate chunks on the top.
As the cake lay secretly resting in the fridge, my wife and I went out to dinner. I had arranged for everyone to meet us at a different bar/restaurant in the neighborhood. I had also arranged with one of our friends to stop by earlier in the day and pick up keys, so that while we were out to dinner she could pick up the cake and bring it to the party.
After dinner, we walked back home from the restaurant, but I told my wife we couldn’t stop at home. I told her there was one more stop we had to make. She was a good sport and joined me on the unknown adventure. The party was only a block away. As we walked in, and walked toward the back, she started to notice a whole gaggle of her friends assembled. She had no idea what was happening, and was pleasantly surprised.
After hanging out with everyone for a while, and after she got over some of the shock of it all, we eventually got around to eating the cake. Lots of people had never heard of icebox cake before, but that didn’t stop it from being devoured. Since the cake didn’t get to sit as long as it should have, the cookies were still pretty solid, and not as cake-like as they should have been. It was still quite tasty, but it wasn’t quite icebox cake consistency. However, the birthday girl was very happy with it (and everyone else was, too). That’s what mattered.
What also mattered is that everyone got to celebrate her. As I said, I like to celebrate people on birthdays, but it wasn’t just me. Everyone was truly, honestly, and emphatically excited to be there. People remarked to me over and over how happy they were to be a part of it, how much fun it was, and how great it was to get to appreciate her.
It took her a while to let it all sink in, which was good, because it was a lot to take in. She was happy, I was happy, everyone was happy. And in the end, that was the most important thing.
Normally I would take time here to thank my wife for her help, but this time I want to give a shout out to all of her friends for helping put this together. You know who you are. Thank you.
I encourage you all to try icebox cake sometime, whether or not you make your own cookies. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s delicious. But what I really encourage, more than anything, is to find out what makes the people around you happy, and, if at no other time, see if you can arrange to make that happen on their birthday. I can assure you they’ll be glad you did.