Couchbound during the first trimester of my second pregnancy, I watched my now favorite movie, Top Hat, over and over. Funny—verging on naughty—and appeasing, the film showcases Fred Astaire‘s irresistible charms as he sings and dances to woo his consort Ginger Rogers. (Sylphid Rogers nearly made me puke— over-stuffed with Thanksgiving provisions and fuel as I was—the first time I saw the opening scene of Gold Diggers of 1933, when she sang “We’re in the Money” in pig-Latin. Do NOT watch that number with an overly full belly topped-off with scullery lube!
“No Strings (I’m Fancy Free),” the first song in Top Hat, brings to mind more carefree times, say, before you had children. Remember that summer you stayed at the lake almost every weekend? Jamaican jerk turkey thighs, wild salmon, grilled steak, summer veggies, pasta salad and watermelon. How did you ever have time to make dessert? You probably whooped up a simple ice box cake. Because it must be made 2 days ahead and comes together very quickly, an ice box cake saves you plenty of time for marinating your meats and cutting your vegetables. Plus it’s delicious! Who besides Austin Farm to Table 😉 and my own kindergartner doesn’t love whoop cream—and chocolate cookies?
If you find yourself in the neighborhood of low-price champs Natural Grocers, pick up a quart of Iowan Farmers’ Creamery whipping cream for only $5.79. You’ll be creamed up for two sets of cool desserts: the easy, easy Ice Box Cake and a seductive Crème Brûlée. Can’t beat butterfat!
ICE BOX CAKE serves 6-8
- scant pint of heavy or whipping cream, organic or local. Look for Organic Valley (organic) and Promised Land (Texas) at the usual stores or the non-homogenized, low-heat pasteurized Farmers’ Creamery brand at Natural Grocers.
- 1 Tablepoon turbinado sugar. I buy this in bulk and we go through a lot of it—for iced coffee and ice tea. I bring an old 3# peanut butter jar and have the staff tare the weight for me.
- 1 Tablespoon instant espresso powder. Medaglia d’Oro is the standard.
- 2 Tablespoons Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
- about 54 Salem Baking Company “Artisan Chocolate Blend” Moravian Cookies. That’s a little more than one box. These labor-saving cookies aren’t cheap—at $4.99 a box (Central Market price) they’re a treat. They are all natural and trans fat-free, however, unlike Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers.
Line a 1½-quart dish with two crisscrossed overhanging lengths of plastic wrap. I use an old Pyrex baking dish approximately 8¼” X 6½”. With a cold beater or whisk, whip your cream to firm peaks. Please don’t overbeat the cream. Keep it smooth. Place a generous one-half of the whipped cream into the lined container, spreading it to the edges. Insert the cookies upright into the cream. For my dish I configure the cookies in three very slightly overlapping rows of 18 cookies each. Scrape the rest of the cream into the dish to top the cookies and spread the cream evenly to the edges.
Rap the container gently on the counter top a couple of times to settle the cream, then wrap the cake snugly with the plastic wrap. I like to turn the cake out at this point and replace it upside down into the dish, but that’s just being persnickety. I’m sure the components will even themselves out if left alone.
Let the cake sit in the fridge for 2 days. The cookies absorb the cream’s liquid and turn cakelike, leaving you with thin layers of chocolate bound and filled by a thick and flavorful whoop cream.
Now get onto your wakeboard and go!
I don’t remember who sang that milkshake tune, not that I even knew who the artist was when the song first came out. But I do remember the mint chocolate chip shakes I used to get at Mad Dog’s a couple decades ago, and that reminds me about Central Market’s in-store coupon for free CM Organics ice cream pints (including their mint chocolate chip flavor, which kept our kids in good spirits on a recent drive to Rockne) when you buy a package of CM’s $4.99 frozen filled pastas (not organic, but all natural and handy). We love the pumpkin variety, unfamiliarly accented with the bitter almond sweetness of amaretti cookies in the filling. Tossed with fruity olive oil (or butter), grated pecorino romano and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper, these mezze lune rise to the occasion, quick to wax into a delicious dinner.
If you’re wondering where to put another pint of honest cream (onto your hips, of course, but let’s get gustatorial first), try a rich dish of crème brûlée. Local egg yolks, organic sugar and real vanilla set your custard into a densely creamy bed onto which you burn a sweet, crackling taffeta of turbinado. Light it up!
CRÈME BRÛLÉE FOR THE FAMILY makes about 6 servings
- 1 pint organic or local heavy or whipping cream, see above for selections
- 6 or 7 local egg yolks. I like to weigh these out, in which case I go for about 120 grams.
- 1/3 cup organic sugar. Costco offers the best deal on Wholesome Sweeteners 10# bag. Otherwise, check your bulk departments and Central Market and Whole Foods store brands.
- small pinch of salt. I use Real Salt.
- ½ vanilla bean (best), or ½ Tablespoon vanilla bean paste (next best and easier), or ½ Tablespoon great vanilla extract (most convenient). Nielsen-Massey brews full-flavored vanilla products, including paste and organic extract, and packages fragrant, supple vanilla beans.
- 2 Tablespoons turbinado sugar, see above recipe
Special equipment: household or kitchen torch
If you’re using a vanilla bean, split it down the middle with a sharp paring knife and scrape the seeds into 1 cup of the cream in a small saucepan. Add the bean, 1/3 cup sugar and salt and set the pan on the stove over medium heat. Bring the cream just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove the pan from the burner, cover and let the cream steep for 15 minutes before removing the vanilla bean (rinse the pod well, let it dry and repurpose it, tucked into a bottle of homemade vanilla extract or a jar of sugar.) If you’re using vanilla bean paste or extract, just stir the flavoring into 1 cup of the cream.
Preheat your oven to 300°. Lay a washcloth on the bottom of a large (at least 11″ diameter) baking dish. Heat up a quart of water to pipin’ hot. I use a 1-quart glass measure and heat the water in the microwave.
Combine the remaining cup of cream with the yolks and whisk gently to blend well. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into the pan of cream, whisking it in as you go to distribute the heat. Set an 8″ round baking dish into the larger pan on top of the washcloth. I use a Pyrex cake pan. They’re cheap even when new but you can usually find all manner of Pyrex goods (and other bakeware) at the thrift stores. Pour the custard into the smaller baking dish.
Set the whole bain-marie into the oven on a middle rack. Carefully pour the hot water into the larger pan to come up to about 2/3 the height of the custard dish. Bake. When the custard looks set, check its temperature with an instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of the puddin’. You’re looking for 170° to 175° F. Start checking at about 35 minutes.
When the crème tests done, carefully remove the 8″ dish from the water bath and set it on a cooling rack to cool for a couple hours. Once it reaches room temperature, place the dish in the fridge to chill for at least 4 hours, overnight is fine.
When you’re ready to fire it up, blot any condensation on the surface of the crème with a paper towel and evenly sprinkle the turbinado sugar all over it. Light your torch and move the flame across the surface of the custard to melt and caramelize the sugar. Let the fire lick it good, up close and personal, to quickly brown the turbinado. Place the crème in the fridge, uncovered, to chill for 30-45 minutes before serving. Eat right away, before the sweet crackling crust softens. Although it will still taste delicious later, you’ll lose the dramatic contrasting crunch. Then you can enjoy it as crème caramel!