Three wonderful inventions of the late 19th Century made possible a brand new type of no-bake cake. Iceboxes, instant coffee, and commercially baked cookies arrived to make life more convenient. In the summer, creative housewives made use of all of them to create a deliciously cold dessert, the icebox cake.
Before there were electric refrigerators, people had a special insulated cabinet in their kitchens to keep food cold. Ice was harvested from lakes during the winter. Every day a block of ice was delivered to be placed on the top shelf of the icebox. During the course of the day, it would melt and drip into a special pan placed beneath. The pan had to be emptied, and the ice block replaced every day. The search for convenience also involved creating foods that would not need to be refrigerated.
The desire for instant coffee and tea goes back hundreds of years. People wanted the convenience of a lightweight product that wouldn’t spoil, and could be easily prepared by just adding boiling water. In the late 1800s, Sartori Kato developed instant tea powder in Japan. About five years later, France was the birthplace of instant coffee. In 1881 Alphonse Allais filed a patent for a process to make soluble coffee. His technique involved roasting the green coffee beans, then grinding and brewing them to prepare fresh coffee. Next he poured the coffee through very hot, dry air. The brewed coffee eventually dried to a powder. This powder could be reconstituted by adding it to boiling water, creating the first cup of instant coffee. All instant coffee or tea needed was an inexpensive packaged cookie to go with it.
The Kennedy family of Massachusetts filled this need in the United States. In 1890 they began importing machinery for the mass production of sweet wafer biscuits, calling their endeavor the Kennedy Biscuit Company. Wafer biscuits were baked in vanilla, graham, lemon, oatmeal, and sugar flavors. Shortly after this company was founded it was acquired by the National Biscuit Company, also known as Nabisco.
Iceboxes, instant coffee, and mass produced cookies became widely available in the early 1900s. When these were combined with cream, spices, liqueurs, and sugar the result was a new type of summer treat, the icebox cake. Here is my riff on the classic “famous chocolate roll” published on the back of the package of Nabisco’s chocolate wafer cookies.
Chocolate-Coffee Icebox Cake
- 1 package chocolate wafers
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 tsp. coffee liqueur
- 6 tsp. instant coffee granules
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Cover the inside of a cake pan with plastic wrap.
- Place the cream, sugar, instant coffee, and coffee liqueur in a mixer bowl.
- Whip the ingredients together until soft peaks form.
- Spread a layer of whipped cream on the bottom of the pan.
- Line the bottom of the pan with cookies.
- Spread whipped cream over the cookies, and then repeat, until you have used up all of the cookies and whipped cream.
- Cover the pan with plastic wrap.
- Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
- Garnish with fresh berries or chocolate shavings.