When we first published our recipe for ultra-thin and crispy chocolate chip cookies, a number of folks wrote to ask whether these would hold up in place of the Tate's chocolate chip cookies that Ina Garten calls for in her Mocha Chocolate Icebox Cake.
Never having made it myself, I couldn't say for sure, but I was game to try—who doesn't love a good icebox cake? The simple combination of store-bought cookies and whipped cream was a style of dessert that came into fashion during the 1920s, thanks to the widespread availability of both in-home refrigeration and commercial wafers from manufacturers like Sunshine Biscuits and Nabisco. (The history of these companies and their influence on American recipe development are covered extensively in my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.)
While icebox cakes evolved out of the much older tradition of molded desserts, like charlottes, the use of fancy store-bought cookies, rather than slices of cake or homemade ladyfingers, made them faster and easier to prepare, with layers that were thinner and crispier, too—not to mention chic!
Tate's chocolate chip cookies are nothing if not thin, crisp, and chic (and salty-sweet and delicious to boot), so it's no wonder that Ina Garten favors them in her icebox cake. And here, I'll cut to the chase: My copycat version holds up in her recipe just fine. If you love Garten's recipe already, then you're all set to make her icebox cake completely from scratch.
On the other hand, if you're curious to learn how I'd make such a cake for myself, read on. Just know that my intent is not to "improve" on Garten's recipe but to riff on the concept in my own way—which involves less sugar, more mascarpone, more chocolate, more espresso, more vanilla, and a hearty dose of salt. What can I say? I'm not subtle when it comes to mocha!
Step one for a fully DIY icebox cake is to make the Tate's-style chocolate chip cookies, following the recipe exactly up to the baking phase. Instead of portioning the dough to bake as individual cookies, I arrange the pieces within the confines of a traced circle, so that they bake into giant, eight-inch disks—five of these cookie disks in total.
I bake the cookies until they're thin and light brown, with an even color from edge to center. Then, while they're still hot from the oven, I use a knife to gently nudge any overgrown blobs back within the bounds of the circles.
If the spread is too extreme, as it may be here or there, the excess can be trimmed away instead. It will be tempting to snack on this, but hold on to the scraps—they'll be useful for seasoning the filling later on.
This is the most time-consuming step of the recipe, but it's also one that can be knocked out up to a week in advance, as the cookie disks will keep quite nicely at room temperature if tightly wrapped in plastic. It's also a step that generates slightly more dough than needed for the icebox cake, which is the gift that keeps on giving, since the dough freezes very well (see the cookie recipe for more details).
The mocha filling for the icebox cake is comically simple, but this simplicity hinges on the quality of each ingredient. As mocha is a combination of chocolate and coffee, it pays to reach for the good stuff so the flavor can shine through the richness of the cream.
To that end, I recommend any of the brands in our guide to high-fat Dutch cocoa, along with a good-quality instant espresso, like King Arthur. Please note that instant espresso is made from a brewed liquid that's been freeze-dried to form a fast-dissolving powder; it is not interchangeable with coffee grounds of any type.
My recipe also calls for crème de cacao, which is something I keep on hand for other baking projects (like tiramisu and no-churn chocolate ice cream), but the recipe is quite flexible about the type of liqueur used. You can even try an amaro!
The idea is to layer in some bittersweet flavors to open up the aroma of the coffee and chocolate in the cream. Alternatives such as Baileys and Kahlúa, or even rum, will work nicely. The ratio of alcohol to filling is low enough here that the end product will be suitable for children, but those who don't consume alcohol at all can simply replace it with an equal amount of cream.
These ingredients are whipped with equal parts heavy cream and mascarpone, plus brown sugar, salt, and vanilla. (If you're in the market for the latter, we have a guide to vanilla extract as well.) Having some cookie scraps on hand during this phase is useful for taste-testing, as it will give you a better idea of how the cookies and filling combine, and whether an additional pinch of salt or espresso powder may be in order.
After whipping the cream, I use it to generously "paint" the sides of an eight- by four-inch loose-bottom pan—I use Lloyd Pans' 8"x4" cheesecake pan, whose praises I've sung in the past—but it can be assembled in any sort of springform pan as well, although the exact quantities used for each layer will differ.
From there, I layer the cookie sheets and whipped cream together until I run out.
Once it's assembled, I cover the icebox cake with a sheet of foil and refrigerate it for at least six hours, but no longer than 18. (At that point, the cookies begin to soften too much for my taste, though your mileage may vary.)
When the cake is thoroughly chilled, unmolding it is as easy as letting it stand for five minutes at room temperature, then placing it on something tall and wide, like a can of tomatoes, to release the sides.
After that, I can easily slide an offset spatula under the bottom layer, allowing me to pop the icebox cake onto a serving platter or cake stand.
To finish the icebox cake, I top it with a generous mound of unsweetened whipped cream, which provides a nice reprieve from the sweetness of the cookies and the bitterness of the filling.
I also spoon some milk chocolate shavings over the top, though a handful of chocolate sprinkles would be lovely, too. For this recipe, I like to use a dark milk chocolate, such as Endangered Species 48%, but I can gladly recommend any of the bars listed in our guide to supermarket milk chocolate. Or, add some bitter notes by shaving one of our favorite dark chocolate bars over the cake instead.
There are any number of ways to make chocolate shavings or curls, but the easiest is to run a stick peeler down the narrow length of each bar and let the shavings fall onto a sheet of parchment underneath.
This works best with chocolate around 70°F (21°C), as it may be quite brittle when cool, or too soft when warm. You can technically do this with a Y-peeler as well, but its design tends to pull up fine shavings rather than curls.
After it's assembled, serve the icebox cake right away, while it's still nice and cold. Use a large chef's knife to cut each portion, and make some peace with the fact that it's a somewhat messy endeavor. That's half the charm!
Remember that the cake will only get softer with time; whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is largely a matter of personal preference. For me, it's best made and served within an 18-hour window, but my brother loves the way it dissolves into a soft but toothsome mush after a few days (he compares it to cake mashed with ice cream).
Likewise, when the icebox cake is still quite fresh, it may be too crispy for some (not me!), so bear its evolving texture in mind when considering your timeline of execution. When it's done right, you'll have chocolate chip cookies that are exactly as crisp or soft as you prefer, with a creamy filling that's bold and bittersweet, laced with notes of espresso and vanilla.