Chocolate Raspberry Rose Icebox Cake
I’m not really sure where the time went, but Diversivore just turned 6 months old! It’s been a crazy, intense, exciting (and exasperating) 6 months, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. So, a lot like having a baby, only without sleep deprivation. Fortunately I have my two kids to keep me on my toes in the ruined-sleep department.
So how does one celebrate a half-birthday? With an non-baked cake of course! Because, you know, it’s special enough for cake, but not special enough for me to actually turn my oven on. In any case, July is not exactly the month where my thoughts turn to baking, so in keeping with my cold-house-cooking theme this month, I decided to adapt a family-favourite icebox cake, and to throw a little Diversivore party. And a Diversivore party doesn’t mean balloons and streamers so much as it means good food and culinary analysis. It’s my party and I’ll introspectively analyze if I want to.
If you’re unfamiliar with icebox cakes, they are in essence a quick-fix no-bake take on the classic European layered desserts (trifles, charlottes, etc.). The concept is simple enough – alternate layers of biscuits with something sweet and creamy, then put the whole thing in the fridge and let it sit of a while. The moisture in the cream (or pudding, etc.) softens the biscuits and leaves you with a lovely, soft dessert with a cake-like consistency. In principal, it’s a great way to make a really wonderful dessert without a lot of preparation time (or heat). In practice… well, let’s just say that things vary pretty wildly.
Ice box cakes are one of the simple, hassle-free desserts that evolved during the early 20th century as America (and eventually much of the world) became obsessed with pre-made and processed food. Because they were popularized by the companies that made biscuits and cookies, they tend to push lots of other processed products (after all, these companies have pretty diversified portfolios these days, and they want you using their products every step along the way. In addition to the cookies/biscuits, many recipes will call for instant pudding, whipped topping, and branded chocolate (or ‘chocolaty’) products, all in the name of convenience. In fact, the original berry-free version of this cake, which has been around in my family for over 50 years, probably came off of the back of a box.
Now all that talk of industrial food processing might not seem like a particularly glowing endorsement (and it’s not intended to be), but it’s worth remembering that the processed food revolution was viewed as a godsend by many, since it allowed people to feed their families without spending all day in the kitchen. As more and more women joined the workforce, these foods became even more popular, especially since these women were largely expected to continue to maintain the home and feed the family. The whole thing is a fascinating sociological phenomenon, though it has left us in a rather unfortunate position today. Pre-packaged, heavily processed foods have become an overwhelmingly common feature in our lives, and we’re suffering health and environmental consequences as a result. But there’s no need to be wildly dogmatic about things. I love scratch cooking, but a good idea is a good idea, and icebox cakes can be absolutely wonderful. The trick is thinking about what you’re actually trying to achieve, and where you’re better of working from scratch. I use store-bought graham crackers here because, frankly, making my own graham crackers is not very high on my to-do list right now. But then I hit the brakes… sort of. The rest of this cake is, in my opinion, entirely scratch-made, but it can be tough to draw lines. Are rosewater and cocoa powder scratch ingredients? They’ve been manufactured and processed somewhere, but they’ve achieved ‘scratch’ status as pantry items. And what about the cream? I’ve recently become obsessed with a local organic whipping cream (every time you say “local organic” another Instagram food account magically appears on the internet) that contains nothing but cream, but most conventional heavy/whipping creams contain several stabilizers and thickeners. They’re still a far cry from the whipped-oil-products passed off as imitation whipped cream, but are they a processed food?
I’m pointing out these odd little features and inconsistencies in our approach to cooking because they get us thinking a little bit more about what we eat and why. On one level, this is a simple, easy, delightful dessert that dances nimbly between convenient food and scratch cooking. But on a deeper level its a treatise on what you can do with food if you want to. You could swing hard in the processed direction and use imitation cream, chocolate pudding powder, and store-bought raspberry jam. You could go in the other direction and make your own graham crackers and rosewater from the roses in your garden. But then, perhaps you’d need to milk your own cow and mill your own graham flour to achieve true hardcore food DIY status. No matter where on the spectrum you end up, I hope you’ll pause from time to time to really consider two fascinating and meaningful questions: what is my food? And how did it come to be?
Now let’s go eat some cake.
As I’ve suggested above, this is easy-peasy. The trick to a great cake here is great ingredients. Beyond that, there are a few construction tips below that will help you put the cake together well.
Chocolate and raspberry are a superb combination, but if you can’t get good raspberries or they’re not in season (seriously, don’t bother with the ridiculously over-priced half-pints in the dead of winter), you could easily substitute another fruit of your liking. Strawberries or blackberries would work nicely. Marmalade or orange curd would also be interesting. In fact, I might just have to try this with orange curd now that I think about it….
Rose water is exactly what it sounds like – water that’s been scented/flavoured with rose extracts. It’s commonly found in Middle Eastern grocery stores, and can sometimes be found in Indian ones as well.
Rose water has a powerful rose scent, and should be used lightly. Too much of it and your dessert will smell like your grandmother’s soap drawer. While it does pair wonderfully with raspberry, you can omit the rose water if you like.
You need to use the long, rectangular graham cracker ‘sheets,’ composed of 4 smaller crackers separated by perforations. If you only have square (‘half-sheet’) graham crackers, you’ll need 44 instead of 22.
Graham crackers are a funny thing. They were invented in 1829 by Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham who, along with John Harvey Kellogg (of Corn Flakes fame), promoted a diet composed of whole-grain, ultra-bland foods. This was supposed to help fend off sexual urges, among other things. The modern graham cracker has been heavily sweetened and flavoured (I’m sure the late Minister Graham would be appalled), and it’s one of those odd junk-food items that still manages to fly under our radar a little. They’re basically cookies. The most common brands are pretty processed, and they generally feature artificial flavouring, so if that’s something you try to avoid, take note. There are some very tasty organic ones on the market now, so you can shop around a bit if you like, though the overall nutritional profile is pretty similar to the conventional varieties. Do not use a flavoured graham cracker (they come in cinnamon, vanilla, etc.).
The cake is pretty easy to put together, but there are a couple of trick that make it easier. In the name of full disclosure, I assembled the cake you see here with raspberry layers back-to-back. It occurred to me later that they’d be nice in between chocolate layers, so that’s what the instructions reflect. Rest assured that if you mess up the order, you’ll end up with an awesome cake regardless.
The crackers like to move around a little bit while you work, so a spoonful of chocolate cream on the bottom of your working surface is a nice way to give them something to hold on to. From there, the process is pretty easy, but there are a few things to remember as you work:
1. Do not press down hard while adding crackers or filling, as the cream will come flying out of the sides.
2. If you have cracked/separated graham crackers, use them in the middle layers, as they’ll be held in place better.
3. The raspberry layer is quite a bit runnier in general, so if you have trouble getting it to stay in place, you can use a flat tool to make a little chocolate cream lip around the edge of your crackers. If you’ve managed to work quickly, the graham cracker pieces that go around the sides can go on last. If you’re lagging a bit, or if things are getting drippy, put them on before after you’ve done the first two layers, then fill in the rest with the cracker bulwark in place. According to Google, that’s the first time the phrase “cracker bulwark” has ever been used on a non-spam, non-gibberish website.
4. Keep things cold. Work fast, and use chilled cream. If it warms up to much, everything starts to melt and fall apart.
5. If you want to do the fork marks on the top, do them before the cake has set, not after. They’ll look smoother and groovier (figuratively and literally). Decorate with raspberries just before serving so that they don’t bleed juice all over the cake.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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