Vanilla Wafer Ice-Box Cake

25 Jan


This is a dessert from the 1950s, pure nostalgia.

I grew up in big house shared with lots of family: my parents and me; my aunt, uncle, and my cousin, the same age as me; and my Grandma Kates. We all shared the one kitchen, so lots of people were cooking in there.  My grandmother cooked Jewish dishes from Europe:  chicken soup with kreplach, homemade noodles, sorrel soup, coffee cake. My Aunt Edy usually made dinner every night for the seven of us plus whoever else came by to eat. My Uncle Bob had worked in a butcher shop and liked to carve roasts and make fancy trays for parties.  And my Dad made pancakes in the morning. But what I remember my mother cooking was dessert: homemade candy, fudge, penuche, nougat,  brownies. cookies, pudding cake, and ice-box cakes.  This is one of the desserts I remember the best. As a child, I loved the pink color and the flavor. And now it makes me think of my mom.

No doubt she she found the recipe on a box or a can, but I haven’t been able to find  the source. Ice-box cakes were very popular back then, and my mom had a few such desserts in her repertoire. She also made an icebox cake with layers of chocolate pudding and graham crackers. Maybe I will post that one in the future as well. My Aunt Rita also made a refrigerator cake with chocolate cookies and whipped cream. I remember that she made one when she hosted a wedding shower for me. It was also a recipe from a cookie package, but my cousins Bob and Evan have also posted the recipe on their food blog, and have said it is okay to share the link here:

Anyway, here is the recipe:

Vanilla Wafer Ice-Box Cake

The night before you make this dessert, put a 12 oz can of evaporated milk in the fridge and let it chill overnight.

The next day, combine 1 box strawberry Jello (4 serving size) with 1 1/4 c. hot water, 1/3 cup honey,  3 tablespoons lemon juice, and 1/8 tsp. salt. Let the mixture set slightly in the fridge for about 45 minutes.  (Don’t leave it much longer or it will set too much to whip.) Remove the mixture from fridge and whip it with the electric beater till it forms soft peaks (maybe 10 minutes).

In a second, smaller bowl, beat the chilled evaporated milk until soft peaks form. Whip it as much as you can stand. Again, this takes about 10 minutes .

Combine the two mixtures and beat some more until it forms stiff peaks. (Another 10 minutes)

Prepare 1 1/2 cups crushed vanilla wafers in the food processor. Line the bottom of an 8 x 13 or 9 x 13 inch pan with about 1 cup of the wafers.

Ladle in the strawberry-milk mixture. Smooth it out gently, and sprinkle remaining crumbs on top. Refrigerate until set.

When you are ready to serve this, garnish at the last minute with small strawberry slices.


Other flavors: you can use ginger snaps or chocolate wafers instead of vanilla wafers.  Try cherry or raspberry jello with chocolate cookies, lemon or orange jello with ginger snaps.

Go nuts: You can use chopped nuts to replace part of the cookie crumbs, which is another chance to add flavor: pistachio, almond, walnut.

Make it pretty: garnish with small pieces of fruit or lemon rind, but wait till the dessert is set and add at the last minute.

For a reduced sugar version: substituting finely chopped nuts for all or part of the cookie crumbs will help.  You can use sugar-free cookies.  And this recipe does work with sugar-free jello. Please note: You can’t make a completely sugar-free version of this dessert because the honey is needed to make the mixture stable enough to set. (The honey also makes the sugar-free jello taste better.)

For a low-fat version, you can use low-fat or nonfat evaporated skim milk.  I tried this and was surprised at how well this worked.  The texture is a little lighter and you might have to beat the mixture a bit longer.

The recipe worked even when I made both substitutions: sugar-free jello and evaporated skim milk.

However, with any substitution, the texture and taste might be a little different or might not set up as well depending on conditions.  If you plan to serve this for company, another option is to serve it in small glass dessert dishes or cups.

For a gluten-free version: use gluten-free vanilla wafers or gingersnaps. Or just use finely chopped nuts instead.

For a vegan and/or non-dairy (pareve) version, whip coconut milk in place of the evaporated milk.

And for a kosher version, check the gelatin package for your preferred label.

For an upscale version, knock yourself out and use whipping cream instead of the evaporated milk.

Written by Randa Dubnick

Image: Vanilla Wafer Ice-Box Cake by Randa Dubnick

All rights reserved.


Queijo Coalho, Receita da Thais (Thais’ Recipe for Brazilian Grilled Cheese)

30 Aug

Queijo Coalho
This is a recipe for traditional grilled Brazilian cheese, but Thais’ version gives it an American twist, a dipping sauce of maple syrup.

This recipe is by our lovely Brazilian friend Thais Pompeo de Pina. My husband and I first met her parents, Sandra and Rene, in 1968 when we were neighbors in married student housing at the University of Colorado. Although we only see each other on rare visits back and forth to the U.S. and Brazil, we have remained very close through the years. And we have enjoyed getting to know their daughters Thais and Taina and watching them grow up. A few years ago, Thais and Taina visited us here in Massachusetts and we learned that they love American pancakes with maple syrup. So it made me smile to see maple syrup as a key ingredient in Thais’ recipe.

Thais’ recipe (a receita da Thais):

In Brazil, queijo coalho comes in packages, with cheese in sticks and already skewered.  Make sure the cheese is very cold. Grill at 250 to 300 degrees Farhenheit (120 degrees to 150 Celsius). You can use an indoor grill. Cook for about two minutes, turning until each side is browned.  Watch carefully, looking for the cheese to brown a little on the edges.

Take the cheese off the grill. Let it cool for a minute or two so it can be handled and will hold its shape.  Gently pull out the skewers. Cut into squares. Pour maple syrup into a shallow plate, about 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep.  Add the cheese squares to the plate.  Serve with toothpicks (flags optional).

This is great with drinks, especially caipirinha!

Thais at the grill

Thais Pompeo de Pina at the grill

Tia Randi’s Notes on Cheese for Grilling in U.S.

It may be a bit of a challenge to find queijo do coalho in the U.S., but try Brazilian grocery stores. In the past, queijo coalho has been sold at Costco and sometimes is available through You can order it from Orrna Foods ( based in Florida. On their site, search for “Coalho Cheese”.

If you can’t find queijo coalho, you can use other types of grilling cheese available in the U.S. Only a few kinds of cheese will hold their shape when grilled. I list a few suggested types below. Most grilling cheeses are made with rennet.* Follow time and temperature directions on the package of whatever cheese you are using. The substitutes will not taste identical, but all are mild, slightly salty cheeses, like queijo coalho.

Buy an 8 to 10 oz block of the kind of cheese you are going to use and cut it into sticks, 1″ x 1″ x 4″. None of the substitutes listed below come with skewers. If you want to use skewers, you can buy wood ones and soak them for 20 minutes before you insert them into the cheese.  But you don’t need the skewers; you can just turn the cheese sticks with tongs. Then slice the grilled sticks of cheese into squares and proceed as above.

Possible substitutes in the U.S.:

–Tropical Brand, a New Jersey company with Cuban origins, makes a grilling cheese and frying cheese, both of which would work. Tropical is carried at Costco, BJs, Walmart, and Market Basket (Boston area), as well as in Latin American groceries. I bought Tropical’s frying cheese (Queso de Frier) at BJ’s and cooked it on the grill for this recipe. It worked well at medium high heat.

–Yanni Grilling Cheese (Karoun Dairies in California) is a Mediterranean grilling cheese. You may be able to find it at Whole Foods; you can order it from Amazon. If you want a kosher* and/or vegetarian option, Yanni grilling cheese is made with a kosher (and plant-based) rennet and all Karoun brand cheese is kosher.

–Halloumi cheese works on the grill and is available at Whole Foods. There are kosher versions of halloumi cheese but they may be hard to find.

*Most grilling cheeses are made with rennet.  If the rennet is not plant-based and/or kosher, the cheese will not be kosher.
Original recipe created by Thais Pompeo de Pina;
“Tia Randi’s Notes on Cheese for Grilling in the U.S.”
by Randa Dubnick
Illustration “Queijo Coalho” by Randa Dubnick. All rights reserved
Photo: “Thais Pompeo de Pina at the grill” by Randa Dubnick. All rights reserved

Grandma Aptaker’s Chocolate Chip Slices

29 May


Grandma Aptaker was my husband’s grandmother. She was born in Russia, raised her family in Brooklyn, and came out with them to Pueblo, Colorado, which is where I met her. Before I got married, I used to watch Grandma cook. I asked her questions while she worked, and wrote down the recipes.

These cookies are shaped like mandelbrot or biscotti. This mildly sweet cookie is basically of Ashkenazi (eastern European Jewish) origin, but I have always loved the addition of the very American chocolate chips. These cookies are slow starters but believe me, they are addictive.


Grandma said, “Make the dough”. So mix together in a glass bowl:

3 eggs; 3/4 cup sugar; 3 cups flour (1/2 cup more if necessary), 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 cup of oil, 1/4 cup of orange juice, and “a little bit lemon juice,” about 2 tablespoons.

Mix with a spoon or by hand. The mixture should be the consistency of cookie dough, but just a bit stiffer. If the dough is too sticky to work with, add a 1/4 cup of flour. This depends on the size of the eggs, humidity of the air, and the whims of fate. If you really need to, add an additional 1/4 cup of flour, but try to avoid it because you want the cookies to be soft. Make the dough into a ball.

Grandma said “roll out the dough.” Here is how: put a few tablespoons of light oil on a cookie sheet. Use a paper towel to spread the oil over the cookie sheet and wipe off the excess to get a very light coating of oil. Then put the ball of dough on a cookie sheet and gently pat it into a rectangle on until it’s about a 3/4 inch thick all around.

Grandma said “sprinkle with chocolate chips and roll up.”* Sprinkle 1/2 to 3/4 cup chocolate chips onto the dough.  I would normally say that there’s no such thing as too many chocolate chips, but in this case you don’t want to use too many because the chips will melt and run together. The chips should be about 1/2 inch apart on the dough.  Then roll up the rectangle into a log, starting at one side and rolling it like a jellyroll. The log should be almost as long as the cookie sheet and about 3 to 4 inches wide. Pinch and tuck the last edge under to seal.

Bake at 350° for about one half hour to 45 minutes. When it’s done, let it cool and then slice it into about 3/4 inch to 1 inch slices. If the slices are too thin, the cookies will crumble.

*If you don’t like all this patting and rolling, here’s an alternative method.  Add the chocolate chips to the dough while it is still in the bowl and gently mix the chips in.  Then place the ball of dough onto the cookie sheet as above, and gently shape into a log.

Historical note: many Jewish cake and cookie recipes use a combination of fruit juice and oil instead of milk and butter. The purpose is to make a non-dairy dessert that can be served after a meat meal. However, in this case, conventional chocolate chips instantly make this a dairy dessert.  If you want a non-dairy (pareve) dessert, you  can use dairy-free chocolate chips. See below.


Other flavors:

If you don’t want to make this with chocolate chips, you can make it with butterscotch, peanut butter,  butter brickle, cinnamon, or white chocolate chips.

Instead of any kind of candy chips, you can use chopped dates or chopped dried cherries, dried apricot, or any other dried fruit.

You can use chopped nuts with the chips, with dried fruit, or by themselves.  Just make sure you are sprinkling only about 3/4 cup total of these mix-in ingredients onto the dough.

You can flavor the dough by adding a tablespoon of grated orange rind. You can also substitute all orange juice for the additional lemon juice. You can add a tablespoon of schnapps (any flavor) in place of the lemon juice.


See above. Just substitute vegan or dairy-free chocolate chips. Kosher dairy-free chocolate chips exist but may be hard to find.  But nowadays, it is pretty easy to find vegan (no dairy) chocolate chips in the organic section of the supermarket.


Just substitute your favorite gluten-free all-purpose flour for the flour in this recipe.  Some good ones include King Arthur’s gluten-free all-purpose flour or Red Mill’s gluten-free all-purpose flour.

Reduced sugar

Substitute Splenda for half the sugar, or use Splenda’s baking mix, which is half sugar. You can find sugar-free chocolate chips on the market, or use dark chocolate chips for less sugar. For diabetics, replace half the chocolate chips with chopped nuts (for added fiber).

By Randa Dubnick

Image is “Grandma Aptaker’s Chocolate Chip Slices” by Randa Dubnick

All Rights Reserved

Mom’s Passover Apple Kugel

29 Mar

Still Life with Kugel

This is a recipe for an apple kugel that my mother sometimes made for Passover. I remember that she brought this dessert to my pot luck Passover seder in Boulder back in the 1970s. I have no idea where she got the recipe, but  her typed recipe card has been in my recipe box for years (see below). She shared the recipe with my aunt (her sister Edythe), and with me, and now I am sharing it with you.

Passover Appel Kugel

Yield: 12 – 15 servings

Ingredients: 6 eggs, separated; 1 1/3 cups sugar; dash of salt; 4 cups grated (peeled) apples; 2/3 cup matzo meal; 4 tsp grated lemon rind (or lemon juice); 2 T Slivovitz plum brandy; 8 T chopped pecans

Peel and grate the apples.Separate the eggs.  Beat the egg whites until they are stiff; set them aside.  Beat the egg yolks with 1 1/3 cups sugar and a dash of salt until the mixture is thick and lemon colored.   Stir in the apple, matzo meal, lemon rind, and brandy.  Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites.  Pour into a greased 10 inch springform pan.  Sprinkle nuts on top. Bake in 350 degree oven for 35 minutes, or until brown and firm.  Cool before removing sides of pan.


So that’s how my mother made this dessert.  She had diabetes and back in the 70s that meant absolutely no sugar.  So she baked this for everyone but couldn’t eat it herself, although she tasted it.  Today the approach to diabetes is different, and if she were still around, I bet we could make a version that she could enjoy.

Reduced sugar version: Use 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup Splenda. Use apple juice instead of brandy.  Add fiber (to counter the sugar) by leaving one of the apples unpeeled.

Gluten free: Use gluten-free matzo meal or almond flour instead of matzo meal

Alcohol free: Use apple juice instead of brandy

Nut allergy: leave out the nuts and after the kugel is baked, sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top.

This is a nice dessert year round. You can get Slivovitz kosher for Passover, but you can substitute any kind of wine or brandy and the recipe will work.

My Mom

Here is my mom, Ruth Zagon, as she looked in the 1970s. I created this digital woodcut from a polaroid taken by my dad, Hy Zagon.


And here is her recipe card, and the recipe in her own words:

IMG_7758 IMG_7760

Drawing is “Still Life with Kugel” by Randa Dubnick

Image of Ruth Zagon is a digital woodcut by Randa Dubnick from a photo by Hy Zagon

Recipe from Ruth Zagon, with adaptations by Randa Dubnick

All rights reserved

Favorite Fruit Salad

18 Jan

Fruit Salad Illustration (Woodcut 3) - Version 2

This is very easy to make but I am including the recipe here because it is a family favorite. Strawberries, oranges, and bananas, perfect harmony in a glass bowl!

The juice of the oranges sweetens the strawberries and helps the bananas keep their fresh color. You can always find the ingredients and you can make this any season of the year. You will need:

2 bananas
2 naval oranges
2 pints strawberries

Choose bananas that are ripe and ready to eat, which means completely yellow peel. If the peel is still green, the bananas won’t be sweet enough. If the peel is speckled with brown, it is too late for a fruit salad. (Make banana bread instead.) Choose firm, bright red strawberries with few green or white areas. And use fresh naval oranges, too.

Follow these steps for the best result:

Step 1: Oranges: Peel the oranges, removing as much white membrane as possible. On a shallow plate, cut the oranges into 1/2 inch slices and then cut each slice into 3 or 4 wedges. Transfer the oranges into a glass bowl, but be sure to leave some of the juice from the oranges on the plate, for the next step.

Step 2:  Bananas. Peel the bananas and put them on the plate, right in the orange juice. Cut the bananas into rounds 1/4 inch thick. Use a spoon to gently slide the banana slices around in the juice on the plate. Then add the banana slices to the glass bowl and cover them up with the oranges. This will keep the bananas from turning brown.

Step 3: Strawberries. Rinse the strawberries and pat dry with paper towels or dry in a salad spinner. Cut the leaves off the strawberries and remove any tips or tops that are green or white. Then cut the strawberries into quarters and add them to the glass bowl. Before you mix them in, taste a strawberry. If the berries are tart, add one or two tablespoons of sugar (or Splenda) right on top of the strawberries. Wait just a minute or two while the sweetener makes the strawberries release their juice. Then mix the berries in with the oranges and bananas.

And that’s it. if possible, serve within 15 to 30 minutes. If you have to wait longer, put plastic wrap directly over the fruit to keep out the oxygen that turns the bananas brown.

This is great for a brunch or as side-dish for a summer barbecue or for dinner on a dreary winter day. It makes a nice dessert all by itself, but if you want to be fancy, serve it in little bowls alongside a slice of pound cake.

This fruit salad seems to disappear, but if you have leftovers, put a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the fruit. Then cover the bowl with a second piece of plastic wrap as you usually would, and refrigerate.

By Randa Dubnick

Image is Favorite Fruit Salad (Digital Woodcut) by Randa Dubnick

All rights reserved.

Grandma Aptaker’s Stuffed Cabbage

17 Jun



Grandma Aptaker was my husband’s grandmother.  She was originally from Russia/Poland, then Brooklyn, and then Pueblo, Colorado.  I learned a lot about cooking from Grandma and this was her most popular dish.

Here is the recipe:

Start with a head of cabbage and separate about 15 leaves from the head by making a cut at the base of the cabbage (near the core).  Work carefully and try to keep them whole.

Cook the cabbage leaves for 15 minutes in a pan of water.  The drain the cabbage and pour cold water over the leaves to keep them from cooking any more.

In a bowl, mix 1 lb of hamburger meat, 1/4 cup water, 1 egg, and 1/3 cup raw rice.  Make 15 little meatballs from the mixture.

Wrap each meatball in a cabbage leaf, as shown in the diagram above.

In a big pot, mix 1 diced onion, 1 can tomato sauce, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 1/2 cup sugar.  (Splenda is okay). Let this mixture cook about 10 minutes.  Then add the cabbage rolls and cook on low heat for two hours.


This is already gluten free.

For a vegetarian version,substitute 1 lb of sautéed mushrooms for the hamburger; mix with rice and egg as above.

By Randa Dubnick

Drawing is “Diagram for Making Stuffed Cabbage” by Randa Dubnick.  All rights reserved.



Rena’s Chili Egg Pie

16 Jun


This is a dish that my mother used to make.  She came by the recipe from her friend Rena Lifton, so I have always called it “Rena’s Chili Egg Pie”.  This is a great dish for brunch and is very portable, so it is easy to take to pot-luck parties.  It is also a great dish for dairy suppers.

And here is how you make it:

Oil or butter a 9 inch pie plate.  Open a 4-oz can of whole green chilies.  Cut the chilies in half lengthwise and arrange them on the bottom of the pie plate, to act as a crust.  Cover the green chilies with 3/4 lb. grated Monterey jack or cheddar cheese.  In a separate container, beat 4 eggs and then just pour them over the cheese.  Bake at 325* degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, or until done.

Despite the chilies, this is a mild dish. Serve with salsa on the side for those who want more spice..

*If you are baking at high altitudes, lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

by Randa Dubnick

Illustration is “Chili Egg Pie” by Randa Dubnick. All rights reserved.