My husband is an easy man to please. There are very few things he doesn’t like, and he loves anything lemon-flavored—cake, cookies, even pasta with lemon. When Father’s Day and his birthday roll around each summer, something luscious and lemony will almost certainly be on the menu.
During one of the first years of our marriage, we put together a family cookbook by soliciting favorite recipes from our friends, parents, and relatives. One of my mother-in-law’s contributions was a dessert called Lemon Whip. As soon as my husband set eyes on the recipe card, it was obvious that Lemon Whip had a special place on his palate. And it looked easy enough: a basic graham cracker crust, covered with a filling made from a can of evaporated milk, some lemon juice, sugar, a box of lemon Jell-o. I’m capable of making very complicated things, and Lemon Whip didn’t look the least bit complicated.
Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten that Jell-o is my nemesis. Any recipe that involves Jell-o is destined to fail in my kitchen. I don’t know why this is, and to tell you the truth, I haven’t lost much sleep over it. I rarely eat Jell-o, and when I do—say, when I’m on the verge of dying from a stomach virus but feeling the need to have something like food in my stomach—it’s easy enough to buy the prepared cups from the grocery store. But occasionally, I bump up against the gelatinous limitation of my kitchen skills. And, frankly, it makes me a little crazy.
My first encounter with Lemon Whip was a dismal failure. The filling didn’t whip into the foamy lightness it was supposed to become; it remained creamy lemon soup in the mixing bowl. When I poured it over the graham cracker crust, thinking I’d just have a dessert that was denser and less fluffy than it should be, the graham cracker crust started floating in the lemon soup. It did set up, after some time in the refrigerator, and my husband insisted that it tasted fine, but I couldn’t help being disappointed in my failure to provide him with the dessert of his dreams.
I didn’t try making Lemon Whip again for many years. I just couldn’t face that kind of humiliation again. Then, for whatever reason, I resolved to give it another shot, certain I could figure out what I’d done wrong before—only to get the same soupy result. We’ve been married for almost 22 years now, so imagine this pattern repeating itself at least four or five times. Last year, determined to get it right, I made Lemon Whip three times in one week. And the third time, finally, was the charm. I thought I’d cracked the code by visiting the Carnation Milk website, where I learned that pouring the evaporated milk into a metal mixing bowl, then putting the mixing bowl, milk and beaters in the freezer until the milk turned icy around the edges , would give me the foamy result I was looking for.
Please note that the sentence above begins I thought I’d cracked the code. When I executed the Lemon Whip successfully, I assumed that meant any subsequent attempts would be successful as well. But this year, on Father’s Day, I found myself right back at lemon soup.
And so I gave up. I made a concession speech to the Lemon Whip recipe. Then, after perusing several recipes that looked similar to Lemon Whip but did not involve Jell-o, I came up with a recipe for Lemon Icebox Cake in celebration of my husband’s birthday. This recipe needs to be made the night before you plan to serve it; the layers need time to mix and mingle and get comfortable with each other. Serve it too soon and you’ll have a layered dessert, not a cake. Not that this would be a bad thing, necessarily.
Before you can assemble the cake, you’ll need to make a batch of lemon curd—my favorite recipe is here, and it’s one of the very few recipes I follow exactly, because I don’t think the finished product can be improved upon. Many lemon curd recipes have to be strained while hot, to eliminate the little chunks of egg that surface during the cooking process, but this recipe avoids that extra step by blending the eggs with the butter and sugar before the cooking begins. If you’re in a hurry, you can buy a jar of prepared curd from the grocery store or make a batch of lemon pudding (cooked, not instant) from a box. Fresh lemon curd will give you the best flavor, but taking either of those shortcuts will still leave you with a tasty dessert.
Lemon Icebox Cake
1 batch of lemon curd
32 vanilla wafer cookies
2 cups whipping cream
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp.vanilla extract
Begin by whipping the cream until it's foamy. Add the sugar, a little at a time, until it dissolves. Then add the vanilla and keep whipping the cream until stiff peaks form.
Assemble the cake. You'll need an 8 x 8 inch square pan; dip each of 16 vanilla wafers in the lemon curd and line the bottom of the pan with dipped cookies. Don't worry about getting more or less lemon curd on each cookie—just give each one a good dunk in the lemon curd. And don't worry about their spacing in the pan—everything's going to be covered with whipped cream very soon, and no one will ever see the cookies in this form again. You'll end up with four rows of cookies, each 4 cookies wide.
Spread half of the whipped cream over this layer of cookies. Be sure to spread the whipped cream all the way to the edge of the pan and cover the cookies completely. Now, the important step: lift the pan about an inch off the counter and drop it. Do this two or three times. You're encouraging the whipped cream to settle down amongst the cookies, filling in any gaps that might remain.
Repeat the layering process, placing dipped cookies on top of the whipped cream layer. Again, you'll have four rows of cookies, each four cookies across. Finish up with a second layer of the whipped cream. Once again, lift and drop the cake pan a few times. Then place a sheet of plastic wrap over the pan and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
A magical transformation will occur inside this cake pan. The cookies will soak up liquid from the lemon curd and whipped cream, melding into soft, cakey layers. The whipped cream will stabilize and thicken as moisture is drawn away from it. The lemon flavor will infuse both cream and cake. Prepare yourself for a little bite of heaven.