Chocolate Icebox Cake

by Bonnie Sparrman

Dome-shaped cake covered in whipped cream, with candles

Imagine a cake that becomes a family legend. It all began for me when I agreed to marry Eric over three decades ago. I was informed by my husband-to-be that this cake has been the center of birthdays in his family for two generations. Grandma Ruth baked it for Eric’s father when he was a boy, much to his delight. Upon the marriage of Eric’s parents, Paul Sparrman and Gunnie Holmquist, in addition to “in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health,” came the solemn promise that she would always make chocolate icebox cake for Paul on his birthday. And for over 50 years, she faithfully honored her vow.

Then along comes Gunnie and Paul’s eldest son, an apple that did not fall far from the tree, who upon our engagement boldly inquires if I will uphold the same birthday tradition. At this point I have never tasted or seen a chocolate icebox cake, but thinking my future might depend on it, I answer, “Yes, of course. Please don’t ask me to be proficient on the piano, but I can certainly bake a cake.” I was intrigued by the thought of this cake deemed so delicious it caused these cake lovers to forsake all others…red velvet, carrot, devil’s food, and my family’s favorite, princesstårta.

My husband’s first married birthday approached, and I asked for the recipe. It sounded simple enough. Bake an almond sponge cake, make a chocolate mousse, rip the cake into pieces and layer it with the mousse into a large bowl. Chill it in the fridge. Then flip it upside-down on a platter and cover it with whipped cream. It all seemed straight forward, until I remembered we were to spend his birthday with my college roommate and her new husband at their lovely, but rustic cabin. I’m quite sure Eric’s mom had electricity and running water when she made this cake, but we would not. I started counting how many bowls of batter, egg whites and cream we would need to whip, and decided to pack a few extra bowls and a couple of wire whisks. We were going to get a workout.

We brought the cake already baked but the mousse would require us to pass bowls of eggs and cream from person to person to whip like mad. When at last a light fluffy mousse came together, we assembled the cake and set it to chill in a cooler with ice. Aha. A true ice-box! When Eric felt we had waited long enough, we turned it out onto a wobbly paper plate, whipped more cream, and slathered it all over. I was enchanted! It was an igloo waiting to be devoured.

This is when I learned I had married into a family of birthday savages. Sparrmans don’t cut the cake and place a civilized slice on a dessert plate. No! I was instructed to take a large spoon and just go at it. Thrust the spoon into the side of the igloo and pull out as much cake and mousse as I would like to put on my plate. Wow…I was beginning to see the attraction of this dessert! But even better, I tasted, and immediately understood why Paul and Eric requested their brides to fulfill their desire for this cake.

So, for the past 80 years, our family has been celebrating birthdays by indulging in this delightful mass of cake and cream and mousse. Fortunately, the great white mound is very adaptable to various of themes of children’s birthday celebrations. Ours have been a doll’s skirt, a cloud with little airplanes flying overhead, a soccer ball, a baseball, a mountain enjoyed by Lego climbers or descending skiers, and most notably, an iceberg with a Titanic chocolate cake crashing into it. (One son dared venture beyond chocolate icebox cake, so two cakes were needed.) A large rounded meat fork, dubbed “the almighty rake” is our utensil of choice taken by each person to claw out their portion.

I wish I could invite you to celebrate a birthday at our table. After dinner the plates are cleared, and dessert plates are passed around. Someone in the kitchen lights the candles (or sparklers) on top of the igloo, and carries the glowing mound to the table. This is the birthday moment we have all been waiting for. We turn to the person of honor and sing our love to celebrate their life. We laugh, and chatter and someone plays a John McCutcheon song called “Cut the Cake” on their phone. We sing along like giddy children at a birthday party, just happy to be together. If newcomers have joined us, inevitably someone tells the story of this enduring icebox cake.

At this point you may wonder why I am so crazy about a simple cake. After all, it is just a cake.

Or is it? You see, at the time of writing this I am planning to make two chocolate icebox cakes in the next few days for a very special event, which has given me pause. Over the past four months, both of my husband’s parents have gone on to the heavenly banquet, and soon the entire family will gather to celebrate Gunnie’s life. In a fresh way, I realize what this cake symbolizes. It reminds me of the importance of what one generation passes on to the next. What gifts do we leave our loved ones? What is our legacy? Certainly, we want to bequeath more than a recipe for a delectable dessert. After all, this cake is just the backdrop for the gathering. But it does help us pull together in warmth and love to enjoy one another, to remember our common past, to share gratitude for our forebears and to celebrate the intertwining of our lives.

As a friend recently pointed out, it is disorienting to lose our parents, those faithful guides who have loved us so well. In my raw grief, I couldn’t agree more. I am forever indebted to my parents and to my husband’s parents for all the goodness they so generously gave their children. Their steady care and focus on Christ helped set the pattern for our lives. And one breath later, I realize that now it is our turn to actively bless and encourage our children. Because of our cake tradition, I am mindful of what I will leave for the next generation. I hope that our children will not only remember our culinary traditions, but also the deep, enduring love and faith that this cake represents.

A Side Note:

Of course, as with any tradition, times change and so do tastes. Each generation tweaks to their preference, and this cake is no exception. This recipe represents the way we now make chocolate icebox cake with twice the chocolate mousse it originally had. Also, we are known to tuck fresh raspberries randomly between the layers of chocolate and cake, and sometimes a shot of Grand Marnier is added to the mousse. And the best advancement…all of our children are excellent bakers, sons and daughters alike. Thankfully we are well past the era of women dominating the kitchen.

RECIPE: Chocolate Icebox Cake

Note:This dessert easily accommodates gluten-free portions. Simply mound some of the mousse into a small bowl or wine glass and garnish with whipped cream and a few berries.

Cake being assembled

Sunshine Sponge Cake

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
6 eggs, separated
2 T. cold water
2 cups granulated sugar (scant)
½ cup hot water
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
½ tsp. cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift flours, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.

Separate the eggs, placing egg yolks in a large bowl, and whites in another. Add 2 T. cold water to the yolks and beat on high with electric mixer for a full minute. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until the mixture is smooth and light yellow. Add hot tap water and extracts. Beat on medium speed, occasionally scraping the bowl. Add dry ingredients and beat on lowest speed forming a uniform batter.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar until they peak, but are not dry. Fold egg whites into batter with rubber scraper turning bowl with each stroke. Pour batter into a tube pan (not greased). Bake in center of oven for approximately 55 minutes, or until cake is golden brown on top and springs back when gently poked. Cool cake upside down for 15 minutes. Loosen cake and remove from pan to complete cooling.

Cake being brought to the table

Chocolate Mousse

6 T. whole milk or half & half
12 oz. good quality bittersweet chocolate, (Ghirardelli pieces work well.)
8 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
6 eggs, separated
1 tsp. granulated sugar
3 ½ cups heavy cream, divided

Heat milk in a small saucepan until it is steaming. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Allow the chocolate to melt, then stir until it is smooth. Cool slightly.

In large mixing bowl, beat butter and confectioners’ sugar until light and creamy. Add chocolate mixture. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition, scraping bowl frequently. In another mixing bowl, beat egg whites with one teaspoon sugar. In a separate bowl, beat 1 ¾ cups heavy cream until it has soft peaks.

Fold one quarter of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a little. Fold in the remaining egg whites, followed immediately by the whipped cream. Keep folding until the mousse is smooth and uniform.

Using a bowl that holds at least 12 cups, fill it with chunks of cooled cake and layers of chocolate mousse. When the bowl is full, cover it with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. About an hour before you plan to serve the cake, whip the remaining heavy cream, sweetening it a little if you like. Turn the cake out onto a large platter and “frost” it with the cream.

Serves 12 -14

PHOTOS: Karl-Jon Sparrman