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Famous Chocolate Wafers are no more, but the icebox cake lives on

The classic version of the icebox cake uses Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, which were discontinued earlier this year.
Zoe Francois
The classic version of the icebox cake uses Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, which were discontinued earlier this year.

For many people, the taste of summer is an icebox cake: whipped cream layered with cookies. There are all sorts of variations using different flavored creams slathered on everything from graham crackers to sandwich cookies to shortbreads. And for many Americans, the most iconic version is lightly sweetened whipped cream with Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers.

But earlier this year, after nearly one hundred years of production, Nabisco stopped making them. Mondelēz International, Nabisco's parent company, confirmed this week that they had "delisted" the cookie. That has left fans scrambling for alternatives reminiscent of the beloved classic.

Jessie Sheehan is a baker and author of Icebox Cakes: Recipes for the Coolest Cakes in Town who loves the Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers icebox cake.

"You could eat that cookie by itself. It just has the most delicious kind of slightly bitter but still a teeny bit sweet chocolate flavor," says Sheehan.

This 1938 Nabisco cookbook features a cover photo of their iconic version of the icebox cake. The recipe inside was later printed on the cookie package itself.
Brass Culinary Collection / Michigan State University Libraries
/
Michigan State University Libraries
This 1938 Nabisco cookbook features a cover photo of their iconic version of the icebox cake. The recipe inside was later printed on the cookie package itself.

Part of what people have always loved about icebox cakes (of whatever type) is not just how delicious they are, but how easy they are to make: combine those bittersweet cookies with sweet cream, let it sit in the fridge for a few hours, and it's done.

The popularity of these desserts dates back to the rise of refrigeration and early 20th century advertising, says Megan Elias, a historian of American food who directs the Food Studies program at Boston University.

As the name suggests, icebox cakes began with literal iceboxes, which kept food cool with a chunk of ice. But as refrigerators became more widespread, the cakes went from rare treat to attainable dessert.

Various food companies came up with recipes tying their products to the icebox cake craze, like this pineapple version in a 1929 Knox Gelatine promotional cookbook.
The Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Collection / Michigan State University Libraries
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Michigan State University Libraries
Various food companies came up with recipes tying their products to the icebox cake craze, like this pineapple version in a 1929 Knox Gelatine promotional cookbook.

"Refrigerators don't get affordable until the 1920s. And then that's when you really begin to see the craze of the icebox cakes," says Elias.

She adds that part of early refrigerator promotion included corporate cookbooks, which contained recipes for icebox cakes.

"They [wanted] people to value the refrigerator. So they [had] to kind of create a new cuisine that [made] people think of the refrigerator as indispensable."

Elias says early icebox cake recipes used sponge cake or ladyfingers, things people had to bake at home. But when packaged cakes and cookies came along, the icebox cake got even easier to make. Eventually, the National Biscuit Company, aka Nabisco, printed a recipe right on the package of their Famous Chocolate Wafers, which became the beloved version many are mourning now.

"It's not a bottom up recipe," explains Elias. "It's very much like green bean casserole where it comes from the corporation, and yet it becomes so much part of people's lives. It's something they remember from childhood."

So what do you do when one of the main ingredients of that childhood memory disappears from the shelves?

There are, of course, other chocolate cookies like Oreos or chocolate shortbreads. But devotees of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers say those don't have quite the same flavor or texture. So to make the closest replica of this no-bake summertime cake, some are turning their ovens back on.

The Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Collection / Michigan State University Libraries
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Michigan State University Libraries

Baker and cookbook author Zoë François recently came up with a recipe that she says is pretty darned close to the original.

She uses lower-gluten cake flour to get that delicate snap the cookies are known for, and Dutch process cocoa powder, which is darker, for that zebra-striped effect in the finished cake. She also adds baking soda, because the alkalinity makes the dough even darker.

Bake the cookies up, spread on the whipped cream, and it's an icebox cake almost like the original.

Cakes made from home-baked or alternative cookies will of course differ a bit from nostalgic memory. But they're just the latest chapter in the same story: "it's about industrialization and food," says historian Megan Elias. "But also, it's just about delight, right?"

And about a dessert that is perfect on a hot summer day — no matter what the cookie.

Icebox cake
/ Zoe Francois
/
Zoe Francois
Icebox cake

Chocolate Wafer Cookies & Ice Box Cake

From Zoë Bakes on Magnolia Network

Makes about 75 1½-inch cookies, and one very large cake — you can halve for a smaller version

Chocolate Wafer Cookies

1 1/4 cups (133g) cake flour

1/3 cup (37g) unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/2 cup (113g) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup (120g) confectioners' sugar

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the butter, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla extract on low speed until combined. Increase to medium speed for a minute. Add the flour mixture and mix on low just until evenly combined.

3. On a sheet of plastic wrap, form the dough into a 1 1/2-inch-thick log. Wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour. The cookie dough can be made the day before or frozen for a few weeks.

4. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a sharp knife, slice the dough log into thin rounds, about 1/8-inch-thick. Arrange on the baking sheets and bake for about 8 minutes or until set (they will no longer be shiny). If baking more than one sheet at a time, you may want to rotate the trays back to front and switch from top to bottom racks midway through baking. Let the cookies cool completely.

Ice Box Cake

Whipped Cream Filling:

4 cups heavy whipping cream

1/3 cup confectioners' sugar

1 Tbsp vanilla extract

Topping (optional)

2 cups heavy cream

1 tbsp confectioners' sugar or more to taste

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Garnish:

Chocolate shavings for decorating

1. To assemble, line an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the chilled cream, confectioners' sugar and vanilla on medium speed until very soft, slouchy peaks form.

3. Cover the bottom of the prepared pan with about a 1/4-inch-thick layer of the cream. Line the outside of the pan with some of the cookies. Spread a layer of the cream on each cookie and layer them together in the pan vertically. You should end up with about 3 rows of cookies and cream. This may vary slightly depending on how large your cookies are. Cover the top with more cream, so the cookies are completely covered. Add a layer of cookies, this time pressing them flat over the cream, so they are laying horizontally. Add two more layers of cream and cookies, ending with a layer of cream. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the cake for at least 6 hours, but ideally overnight.

4. To make the topping: After the cake has chilled, in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla on medium speed until just stiff (do not over beat). Taste and adjust the sweetness to your liking by beating in more sugar.

5. Invert the icebox cake onto a serving platter. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the whipped cream. If desired, pipe a design on the top of the cake using a pastry bag fitted with a star piping tip. Top with chocolate shavings. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Notes

Chocolate wafer cookies adapted from "Zoë Bakes Cookies" by Zoë François © Ten Speed Press 2023. Provided courtesy of Zoë François. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deena Prichep