An icebox cake, for the unfamiliar, is an easy summer dessert that comes together in the chilly confines of your refrigerator. The oven plays no role in the making of an icebox cake — and that’s a good thing when temperatures are high and something cool, creamy and sweet seems like just about the perfect warm weather antidote.

I love an old-fashioned icebox cake, as is evidenced by the fact that I wrote a book about them, and I’m eager to spread the word about just how marvelous these versatile desserts can be. Semifreddos and no-churn ice-cream get a lot of the no-bake-dessert attention, but a retro icebox cake is equally deserving and delicious.

In its simplest form, an icebox cake is a layered dessert of crispy cookies and fluffy whipped cream. But it is one that transforms into something truly magical and complex when placed in the fridge to firm up, as the cookies absorb the cream, softening into something downright caky and luscious.

The recipe for the original icebox cake, still printed on the back of the yellow Nabisco Chocolate Wafer Cookie package, does not even require a pan for assembly: Instead, you stack cookies, nestled with dollops of whipped cream, vertically (domino-style as it were), and form a free-standing log on your serving platter.

Simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to icebox cakes, both in terms of staple ingredients and preparation, and I love them for that. But I also appreciate an icebox cake’s infinite riffability — swap graham crackers for cookies, pudding for whipped cream, add caramel or ganache, and assemble it in a variety of vessels. Thus, the following how-to tips and tricks will not only guide you in creating the easiest of these desserts but also offer suggestions for composing them playfully.

The elements

The caky layers give an icebox cake its structure and, well, cakey-ness. This element can take many forms, such as cookies, graham crackers or ladyfingers. Cookies should be thin and crispy, and are best layered with whipped cream. (Thicker cookies, such as biscotti and some shortbread, remain a bit too toothsome even after the requisite rest in the fridge.) Graham crackers and ladyfingers (either the soft or crispy variety) work well with both whipped cream and pudding. If you’re feeling frisky, layer your icebox cake with chocolate graham crackers or cinnamon ones, peanut butter cookies or even ginger snaps.

The creamy layers soften the caky element and provide the icebox cake with its signature “creaminess.” Whipped cream, pudding and even pastry cream will work in an icebox cake, but whipped cream is best whisked until stiff peaks form — a bit longer than you would if topping a piece of pie — as the stiffer the peak, the more stable the finished cake. When sweetening whipped cream, I tend to add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar to every cup of heavy cream. And if going a bit rogue, by adding zest, juice, booze, spice or fruity preserves to your cream or pudding, let your taste buds guide you.

The playful element is where things really get fun. Not only can you choose from a variety of cookie flavors and infuse your cream or pudding with a little zip when assembling your icebox cake, but you can also add layers of lemon curd, salty caramel, dark chocolate ganache, fresh berries, marshmallow crème or rainbow sprinkles.

The assembly

When choosing a pan or shape for your icebox cake, the possibilities are deliciously endless, provided you remember this: Cakes made with pudding or runny add-ins such as caramel or ganache, do best in vessels with sides to contain oozing and spillage. Can you attempt a cake with ganache in a springform pan and hope for the best upon removal of the pan’s sides? Of course. But to be safe, you should assemble those kinds of cakes in your prettiest pottery or a Pyrex dish.

When layering, I always begin with the creamy element, as it anchors the cake to the serving dish or platter, followed by a caky layer and then, if using, I spread or sprinkle something playful. I like to keep my layers thin — just enough of the creamy element to completely cover the caky one, with no holes or gaps between cookies or crackers (this usually requires breaking them into pieces), and vice versa. Continue to assemble in this order until you reach the top of your pan or run out of an element, finishing the cake with something creamy.

To ensure your cake properly sets up, I recommend chilling it in the refrigerator, lightly covered with plastic wrap, for at least 8 hours, and preferably overnight. Cakes made with very thin cookies may be ready in less time.

After it has rested, decorating your cake with sparkling sugar, crushed candy, citrus zest, chocolate curls, sprinkles or toasted nuts is a lovely way not only to finish the cake but also to add texture.

Final notes to chill by

DIYing: Assembling an icebox cake can be nearly effortless, but if making homemade crispy, thin cookies (or graham crackers or ladyfingers) is your thing, by all means, go for it. An icebox cake made with homemade caky layers is undoubtedly something special, as is one made with homemade pudding, caramel or jam.

Seasonality: There is no question that an ice-cold icebox cake is the perfect summer entertaining dessert. I mean, parties need cake, and who wants to turn on the oven when the kitchen is already beyond toasty? It can also serve as the ideal showcase for your latest haul from the farmers market, via layers of fresh strawberries or tiny chunks of juicy black plums or nectarines. But icebox cakes are truly fantastic any time of the year — think ginger-chai for Thanksgiving, peppermint- chocolate for Christmas, or Black Forest for Valentine’s Day.

Making ahead and freezing: If its ease and flexibility haven’t persuaded you to join Team Icebox Cake, perhaps this will: not only do icebox cakes have to be made ahead — ideal for that barbecue next Wednesday night, the potluck this weekend and for those hosts among us (um, me) who like to have as much of the meal and all of the dessert finished before her guests’ arrival — but they freeze beautifully. Follow the tips for wrapping and refrigerating your cake, and after 24 hours, cover it in aluminum foil and freeze for up to a month. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before serving the next day.

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Rainbow Sprinkle Icebox Cake

Everyone’s favorite birthday cake gets an icebox makeover. Shortbread cookies are layered with sprinkle-studded cream-cheese-and-whipped-cream frosting and assembled in a springform pan. The cream cheese helps to cut down on the sweetness and adds a lovely tang to the cake. Once released from the pan, the entire cake can be coated in more sprinkles.

A cake this festive calls for a scoop of ice cream on the side.

Serves 16

Nonstick cooking spray or softened butter, for the pan

1½ cups (340 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature

3 cups heavy cream

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1½ cups (225 grams) rainbow sprinkles, plus more for decorating (optional)

80 (560 grams) thin shortbread cookies, preferably Lorna Doone

Grease the sides of a round 9-inch springform pan that is 3 inches deep with cooking spray or softened butter. Line the sides with a strip of parchment.

Add the cream cheese to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium speed, about 3 minutes, until smooth. Add the heavy cream, increase the speed to medium-high and continue to whisk until incorporated.

Add the sugar and vanilla, and whisk the mixture, about 3 to 5 minutes, until it holds stiff peaks that stand upright when the whisk is raised. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the rainbow sprinkles and mix just to incorporate.

Spread a thin layer of whipped cream (about 1¾ cups) on the bottom of the pan and cover with a layer of cookies, filling any gaps with broken cookies (breaking them yourself, if necessary.) The pieces should touch; the goal is a solid layer of cookies. Continue layering until you reach the top of the pan, ending with a layer of cream.

Cover the top of the cake with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours, or overnight.

To serve, remove the sides of the pan and peel away the parchment strip. Place on a serving plate and lightly press sprinkles onto the top and sides of the cake, if desired. Slice as you would a layer cake and serve.

Notes: The cake will keep loosely covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or frozen, after it has set up in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, for up to 1 month. Defrost the cake in the refrigerator overnight before you plan to serve it. Once you cut the cake, leftovers can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated, and are best within a day.

Nutrition information per serving — calories: 520; total fat: 35 g; saturated fat: 17 g; cholesterol: 85 mg; sodium: 260 mg; carbohydrates: 49 g; dietary fiber: 0 g; sugars: 27 g; protein: 3 g.

From cookbook author Jessie Sheehan.

* * *

Peach Melba Icebox Cake

Peach melba (poached peaches drizzled with raspberry sauce and served with scoops of vanilla ice cream) is what summer icebox cake dreams are made of — seasonal and perfect to fight the sweltering heat. Here, peach jam is folded into almond-flavored whipped cream, which is studded with chunks of ripe peaches. The cream is layered with fresh raspberries and thin, crispy almond wafers, then topped with a toasted almond slices for flavor and texture.

Peaches are lovely when paired with almond extract, but feel free to flavor your cream with vanilla extract instead, and to substitute a different flavored cookie for the almond ones. In place of nuts, garnish the cake with crushed cookies.

You may want to add more jam, depending on the sweetness of your peaches.

Serves 12

2 cups heavy cream

½ cup (185 grams) peach jam, or more as needed

1/3 cup (80 grams) sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ to ¾ teaspoon almond extract

2 medium peaches, halved, pitted and roughly chopped into ½-inch pieces (about 140 grams)

5 cups (595 grams) fresh raspberries

25 crisp, thin almond wafer cookies, such as Anna’s Swedish Thins, or 70 vanilla wafers or 20 sheets graham crackers

Toasted almond slices, for garnish

Add the cream to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium to medium-high speed, 2 to 3 minutes, until the cream begins to thicken. Add the jam, sugar, vanilla extract and almond extract, to taste, and continue to whisk on medium to medium-high speed for about 3 more minutes, until stiff peaks form. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the peaches into the cream.

Use a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread a layer of cream, about 1½ cups, on the bottom of an 8-inch square pan. Cover the cream with a layer of raspberries and then a layer of almond cookies, filling any gaps with broken cookies (breaking them yourself, if necessary). The pieces should touch; the goal is a solid layer of cookies.

Continue with additional layers of whipped cream, raspberries and cookies, ending with a layer of whipped cream. Gently cover the pan with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the cake for 6 to 8 hours, or preferably overnight.

Peel off the plastic wrap. Garnish the top of the cake with the toasted almonds.

Cut the cake into slices while in the pan and serve.

Notes: The cake will keep loosely covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or frozen, after it has set up in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, for up to 1 month. Defrost the cake in the refrigerator overnight before you plan to serve it. Once you cut the cake, leftovers can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated, and are best within a day.

Nutrition information per serving — calories: 330; total fat: 16 g; saturated fat: 10 g; cholesterol: 55 mg; sodium: 160 mg; carbohydrates: 42 g; dietary fiber: 4 g; sugars: 25 g; protein: 2 g.

From cookbook author Jessie Sheehan.

* * *

Dark and Stormy Icebox Cake

A dark and stormy cocktail is made with dark rum and ginger beer, garnished with a slice of lime. The drink’s flavors translate beautifully when refashioned as an icebox cake. Layers of crispy ginger snaps replace the beer and are alternated with two flavors of whipped cream — dark rum and lime. The cake is assembled in a loaf pan, and once sliced, every layer is charmingly displayed.

For an alcohol-free cake, use rum extract to taste in place of the rum.

Serves 12

3 cups heavy cream

½ cup (100 grams) sugar

4 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 to 3 tablespoons finely grated lime zest, plus more for decorating

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or more as needed

About 56 (400 grams) gingersnaps, preferably Stauffer’s, or other crisp ginger cookie

Line a 9-by-5-by-2-inch loaf pan with a large sheet or two of plastic wrap so the wrap overhangs the pan on all sides.

Put the cream in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium to medium-high speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until the cream begins to thicken. Add the sugar and vanilla and whisk about 3 more minutes, until stiff peaks form. Transfer half of the cream to a small mixing bowl. Add the rum to the cream still in the stand mixer bowl and whisk on medium-high speed about 30 seconds, or until combined. By hand, gently whisk the lime juice and zest (to taste) into the remaining whipped cream.

Use a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread a layer of rum cream, about 1 cup, on the bottom of the pan. Cover as much of the cream as possible with a layer of gingersnaps, filling any gaps with broken snaps (breaking them yourself, if necessary). The pieces should touch; the goal is a solid layer of cookies. Add a layer of the lime whipped cream, about 1 cup, and cover with another solid layer of snaps.

Continue layering, alternating flavors of whipped cream and cookies until you run out, ending with a layer of lime-whipped cream that rises slightly above the edge of the pan. Cover the cake with the overhang of plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours, or preferably overnight.

Invert the cake onto a serving platter. Lift the pan off and peel away the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the top of the cake with additional lime zest.

When ready to serve, slice the cake with a long serrated knife and garnish with additional lime zest grated on top.

Notes: The cake will keep loosely covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or frozen, after it has set up in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, for up to 1 month. Defrost the cake in the refrigerator overnight before you plan to serve it. Once you cut the cake, leftovers can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated, and are best within a day.

Nutrition information per serving — calories: 390; total fat: 25 g; saturated fat: 15 g; cholesterol: 80 mg; sodium: 190 mg; carbohydrates: 36 g; dietary fiber: 0 g; sugars: 17 g; protein: 3 g.

From cookbook author Jessie Sheehan.

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