When there are two birthdays in your family of four within seven days, it makes for a festive week. And, well, a lot of buttercream too.
My birthday was yesterday, at the tail end of that celebratory span. And by the time my moment to blow out the candles rolled around, the last thing I wanted was cake.
So we made this. By we I mean our Benjamin and I did, and by this I mean a Strawberry Icebox Cake. But it's not a cake, really, simply graham crackers stacked with sweet, whipped heavy cream and drizzled with a rosy strawberry sauce. After a rest in the chill chest from which its name derives, the crackers swell and the cream thickens and the strawberry sauce pretty much becomes best friends with everybody.
That sauce is the only cooking requirement; it's a stirring job for the most part as the lion's share of the berries simmer and bubble into a jammy fruit goo (I use the term lovingly), and then a buzz around the blender. What remains now is pretty much laughter and licking the spoons, because you're almost completely home free.
No baking required, no butter to cream, only 10 minutes or so of building block style assembly.
The good manners that my Grandmother taught me tell me I should be abashed at the categorical ordinariness of this cake. It's crackers and cream and fruit. Where's the flamboyance? Where's the show? Birthdays are supposed to be about razzmatazz.
But don't be fooled, it's a quiet cacophony, but this cake will knock you flat. That sauce of ours practically vibrates with each and every childlike notion of what berries should be. It's bold and tangy and reminds you that strawberries aren't just about being sweet; they're one of the first fruits of the season and in that redness they carry the jubilant acidity that comes from crisp mornings and sunshine-bathed afternoons.
Then there's the cream that brings me back to the summer when I was six years old and I thought strawberry ice cream was just about the best thing going. Once the crackers get involved, it all becomes a cloud of strawberry shortcake.
At one point yesterday, I found it hard to chew because I was smiling so big; partly because who made it with me and who was sharing it with me, and partly because was exactly what I wanted. And if smiles like that isn't what the best birthdays are about, then I don't know what is.
Happy days to you.
Strawberry Icebox Cake
This is berry-fied version of the Mocha Icebox Cake we made last year, with little changes to the basic cake and method. I've republished the instructions for ease, but here is the original in case anyone is interested in the chocolate and coffee version. The instructions are for a square cake, which is easier and neater than our attempt at a round. But, if you decide to aim for circular, these amounts will be about right.
Ingredients for the sauce (makes approximately 1 cup)
1 pound strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped
1/3 cup caster sugar, or thereabouts
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
A pinch of salt
Ingredients for the cake
3 1/2 cups heavy (whipping cream), divided
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, divided, or thereabouts
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
45 honey graham crackers, the single kind
One recipe Strawberry sauce, divided
To make the sauce, take three-quarters of the berries and put them in a medium saucepan with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the salt and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit becomes soft and the juices begin to thicken, around 7-10 minutes.
Carefully remove the strawberries to a blender (or use an immersion blender), and process until smooth. Push the puréed sauce through a sieve, back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring again to a simmer, stirring often. Cook the sauce until it becomes truly thick, with a clear, glossy look, around 10 minutes. At this point you want it on the verge of jammy-ness, close to the texture of hot fudge sauce.
Tumble in the reserved berries, give them a few turns in the pan and cook for another minute or so.
Again with care, remove the strawberries to that blender of yours and whirr them around again. Sieve again, this time to a clean container, and set the sauce aside to cool. It should be about the consistency of chocolate syrup, rather than fudge, and will coat the back of a spoon thickly, but not heavily. Once it has cooled to a non-molten level, taste for balance and stir in the rest of the sugar and lemon if need be.
To assemble the cake. Line an 8-by-8-inch metal cake pan with a cross of clingfilm, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip 2 cups of well-chilled heavy cream. Once the cream begins to thicken, sift in 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar and salt. With the mixer on medium-high, whip until the cream begins to hold soft peaks. Add the vanilla, and beat until the cream just holds a stiff peak.
Spread a small amount of the cream on the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Lay 9 crackers, in a 3-by-3 grid, on top of the cream. Spoon 1/2 cup of the cream on top of the crackers. Then, using an offset spatula, gently spread the cream to cover the crackers entirely. Drizzle a few tablespoons of the strawberry sauce over the cream, spreading to form an even layer if desired. (You will use a generous 1/2 cup of the sauce for the entire cake.)
Top with another layer of graham crackers, continuing the layering until you have 5 layers of crackers and 4 of the cream and strawberry. Make sure to reserve a small amount of cream to cover the last layer of crackers (no sauce on this one).
Cover loosely with a piece of clingfilm, then draw the overhanging clingfilm from the sides up to cover the edges. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 2 days.
About 1 hour before serving, remove the cake from the fridge and peel back the clingfilm. Invert the cake onto a serving plate, removing the remaining clingfilm from the top and sides. Smooth out the sides with an offset spatula if needed. Place the cake in the freezer, uncovered, to chill for 30 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip the remaining 1 cup of well-chilled heavy cream. When the cream begins to thicken, sift in the reserved 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar. With the machine set to medium-high, whip the cream until holds a firm peak, but being careful not to over beat.
Take the cake out of the refrigerator and gently spread a thin layer of the whipped cream to cover. Chill the finished cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then serve with the remaining strawberry sauce passed alongside.
Makes one 8-inch square cake.
- The thing about fruit sauces is that so much will depend on the fruit itself. You might need more or less sugar than I've suggested. This recipe will make around 1 cup, but it might be more or less depending on the juiciness of the fruit and how thick your final sauce ends up. Any leftover sauce can be used over ice cream or stirred into yogurt, or as the base of a strawberried champagne cocktail (which gets my vote).