No-bake desserts keeps the kitchen cool

Refrigerator key to refreshing creations.

Who wants to bake in summer’s heat and humidity? Turning on the oven just seems wrong when all you want to do is stay cool.

Trouble is, summer weather doesn’t put a damper on your sweet tooth.

Just imagine what it was like in the days before air conditioning ruled in almost every home and refrigeration was a given — lots of sweaty, grumpy cooks turning out cakes and pies in their oven-like kitchens.

The move to electric refrigeration meant food could be kept at a safe, consistent temperature for longer periods of time. It completely changed the way meals were prepared and how cooks shopped.

Home refrigerators were introduced in the early 1900s and by the 1920s were becoming more common. Refrigerator manufacturers began dreaming up dozens of dishes that could be made only if the cook had refrigeration. Aspic and jellied desserts came into their own. Cold soups and chilled desserts became a part of every cook’s repertoire.

New recipes for icebox pies and icebox cakes might have taken their names from the old kitchen standby, but they took advantage of an electric refrigerator’s ability to hold food over several days. A little sitting time resulted in desserts with a creamy quality and heightened flavors.

I own a collection of vintage cookbooks. One of them is a Midwestern classic, “The Settlement Cook Book,” published in 1901. It was a charity cookbook, created as a fund-raiser for the Jewish Settlement Home in Milwaukee.

A wonderful look at life in America at the turn of the 20th century, the book includes domestic instructions in a chapter titled “Household Rules.” The Wisconsin Historical Society credits author Lizzie Black Kander with using “culinary reform to aid in the assimilation of immigrant girls and to introduce immigrant women to American consumer culture.”

Millions of copies were sold and 34 editions were published. It was most recently revised in 1991 and published under the modernized name “The Settlement Cookbook” and edited by Charles Pierce. My copy dates from the 1940s and carries the subtitle, “The Way to a Man’s Heart.”

Apparently, the way to a man’s heart involves dessert. There are chapters for “Doughnuts and Fried Cakes,” “Torten,” “Ice Cream, Ices and Frozen Puddings,” and one devoted to “Cake Desserts and Icebox Cakes,” with pages of recipes and a section of general rules for icebox cakes. Sadly, the 1991 revision eliminated the chapter on icebox cakes.

But for midcentury cooks, the general rules for icebox cakes advised lining a cake pan or spring form mold with lady fingers, angel food cake or sponge cake, then adding the filling of choice, layered with more lady fingers or cake and putting the result in the refrigerator overnight. When ready to serve, the unmolded dessert would be garnished with whipped cream and nuts or candied cherries.

The result? The perfect summer dessert. No baking, just an assembly of two basic items and a period of time in the refrigerator so the flavors and textures could meld. Best of all, the idea could adapt to whatever the cook had on hand.

Icebox dessert ideas come from everywhere. Summer Pudding is a classic British dessert made of sliced white bread, layered with sweetened fruit and fruit juice in a deep bowl. I admit I’ve resisted this dessert for years. Soggy bread does not sound appealing.

But it’s actually quite wonderful. There’s some kind of alchemy that happens when good quality bread meets luscious summer berries, and that must be why chefs from Emeril Lagasse to Nathalie Dupree continue to offer recipes.

Of course, the easiest no-bake dessert is ice cream. But just dishing ice cream out of the carton is not the way to impress your family or guests. It takes only a few minutes to layer ice cream into a loaf pan or pie plate, along with the essential layers of cookies or cake, and people are always so amazed.

You’ll almost feel guilty accepting all the compliments.



Just as “The Settlement Cook Book” advised, there’s no need for real recipes when working with no-bake desserts. Still, here are a few for inspiration. Think also of trifles, ice cream sandwiches, yogurt parfaits and sweetened berries with whipped cream. The possibilities are endless.


Lemon Icebox Cake

Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 30 minutes, plus time for chilling Serves: 12

Lady fingers once were long fingers of sponge cake. Now they’re most often available as a biscotti-type cookie used in making tiramisu. You’ll find them in the cookie section of your grocery store. Note that the egg whites in this filling are not cooked. Raw eggs can present a health hazard for women who are pregnant, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Pasteurized eggs, available in the grocery dairy case, can be substituted.

1 (7-ounce) package lady fingers

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 cup milk

3 eggs, separated

1/4 cup granulated sugar

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Line the sides and bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with plastic wrap. Cut lady fingers to fit so that they are just as tall as the sides of the pan. Reserve cut pieces. Arrange lady fingers around the sides of the pan and over the bottom. Use cut pieces to fill in any gaps in the bottom. Set aside.

To make the filling: In a measuring cup, dissolve cornstarch into milk. In a medium saucepan, combine yolks, granulated sugar and cornstarch mixture. Cook slowly until thick and smooth, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; add lemon juice and zest. Allow to cool.

In a medium bowl, cream butter and powdered sugar. Stir into lemon/egg mixture. In a clean bowl, whip egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold into lemon mixture.

Pour a layer of filling in the bottom of the pan. Cover with a layer of cut pieces, then cover with remaining filling. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. When ready to serve, remove sides of springform pan and put cake on platter. Serve with whipped cream.

Adapted from the 1949 edition of “The Settlement Cook Book” (revised 1991, Applewood Books, out of print)

Per serving: 281 calories (percent of calories from fat, 56), 4 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 18 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 162 milligrams cholesterol, 53 milligrams sodium.


Summer Pudding

Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 15 minutes, plus time for chilling Serves: 6

Any combination of berries will work, but don’t make it all strawberries as they can make the mixture too watery. The berries and sugar can be cooked in the microwave, if you prefer.

3 cups raspberries

2 cups blueberries

1 cup hulled strawberries, cut in quarters

1 cup granulated sugar

1 (1-pound) loaf firm white bread, crusts removed, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 tablespoons raspberry liqueur, optional

Whipped cream, for garnish

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and sugar. Cook and stir for 5 to 7 minutes, or until berries are juicy but still recognizable. Turn off heat and set aside.

Line a 11/2-quart bowl with plastic wrap. Line the bottom and sides of the bowl with slightly overlapping pieces of bread. Repeat, overlapping in the opposite direction.

Using a slotted spoon for the berries, layer the berries and remaining bread in the lined bowl, ending with a layer of bread. Stir the liqueur, if using, into the remaining juice in the bowl and pour over the final bread layer. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, place a dish over the bowl to weigh down the pudding and place a 1-pound can on top of the dish. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

When ready to serve, invert the pudding onto a platter with a rim to catch the juices. Cut into wedges to serve and garnish with whipped cream, if desired.

Adapted from “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50)

Per serving: 328 calories (percent of calories from fat, 6), 5 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated), 1 milligram cholesterol, 272 milligrams sodium.


Frozen Mocha Toffee-Crunch Terrine

Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus time for freezing Makes: 16 slices

One of the great things about ice cream desserts is that you can make them up to two weeks in advance if you keep them well-wrapped. Chocolate wafer cookies can usually be found on grocery store shelves next to ice cream cones. If your store doesn’t carry them, use split chocolate sandwich cookies, like Oreos, minus the frosting.

19 chocolate wafer cookies

1 pint coffee ice cream

1 (11/2 quart) container vanilla ice cream

1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, plus extra for garnish

1/2 cup toffee bits

Line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap or foil, with long sides overhanging by about 3 inches. Spray lightly with cooking spray.

Arrange 3 wafer cookies, flat side up, in a row in the middle of the bottom of the pan.

Soften coffee ice cream by placing it in the refrigerator for a half- hour. Spread the coffee ice cream in prepared pan, smoothing the top. Cover with 8 wafers, overlapping if necessary. Put in the freezer for 1 hour.

Soften the vanilla ice cream by placing it in the refrigerator for a half- hour. Put half the ice cream in a 1-quart measuring bowl and add the melted chocolate chips and cocoa powder. Stir to combine thoroughly and spread over coffee ice cream. Cover with 8 wafers, overlapping if necessary. Stir toffee bits into remaining ice cream and spread over chocolate layer. Wrap pan with overhanging plastic or foil; freeze at least 4 hours and up to 2 weeks.

To serve, remove wrapping and invert onto a serving platter, dusted with cocoa powder. Let terrine sit 5 minutes; cut into slices.

Adapted from Everyday Food, March-April 2003

Per slice: 223 calories (percent of calories from fat, 47), 3 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 12 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 37 milligrams cholesterol, 105 milligrams sodium.