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.


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