‘m in my third supermarket of the morning, searching for a box of cookies.
Not just any cookies. I’m looking for a specific kind of cookie, one that is crucial for one of the simplest, creamiest, no-bake desserts that a cook could want.
The cookies are Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. They are thin, round and a dark chocolatey brown that’s almost black. They’re crisp and not too sweet – sort of like a svelte Oreo, but without the filling.
They are also a pain in the neck to find.
The cookies have been around since 1924, according to Nabisco’s archives. Uneeda Bakers, a long-ago division of the National Biscuit Company (now just known as Nabisco), originally offered the simple chocolate wafers as well as ginger and sugar ones. Those two flavors eventually were discontinued, but the chocolate ones have endured. Barely.
Although many ice cream pie and cheesecake recipes calling for a chocolate crumb crust will recommend them, the wafers have become harder to come by. They’re not a big seller, unfortunately, and many supermarkets have stopped carrying them.
One wafer fan – Portland, Ore., law professor Jack Bogdanski, who until recently had a popular Web log called Jack Bog’s Blog – posted this sardonic “consumer quiz” in February: “Which is easier to buy in Portland? A. Heroin, or B. Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers?”
Bogdanski went on to complain that “it’s much harder to find Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers than it is to find heroin. Not only can’t you find them on the shelves of supermarkets, they’re also not even mentioned on the Nabisco snack Web site.”
“They’re as scarce as hens’ teeth, I tell ya,” he grumbled in his blog.
I’m looking for them because I want to make a dessert that my mother used to make. It’s a refrigerator cake that some call Zebra Cake and others just call icebox cake. It’s absurdly simple – just sweetened whipped cream and the chocolate wafers. The recipe is on the yellow Famous Wafer box, and there’s a picture of the dessert as well.
As a child, I would watch my mother make this cake for company. First, she’d whip the cream (I’d get to lick the beater afterward, another reason I liked this dessert so much). Then she’d dab some whipped cream on each cookie and stand them on edge, like a row of dominoes, on a serving tray.
When they were all lined up, she would smear the rest of the whipped cream over the cookies to make a long, white log. The log would go into the refrigerator for several hours (sometimes overnight).
When it was time for dessert, she would dust the cake with some cocoa powder or grated chocolate. Then she would slice it, on the diagonal, revealing zebra-stripe layers of white cream and dark chocolate.
To a child, this seemed like magic. How did a rather messy log of cookies and cream turn into this yummy layered dessert?
In searching for the cookies to make the dessert myself, I also wondered just how long the recipe had been around. In many articles and cookbooks, including the upcoming “King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion,” the dessert is described as “dating back to the ’50s.” But my mother told me that my grandmother had made it for the dinner parties she threw in the ’30s.
Food historian Laura Shapiro, author of “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” remembers the cake from the ’50s, but she notes that many of the foods that were popular after World War II actually had their roots two decades earlier.
“It may have blossomed in cookbooks of the ’50s,” Shapiro says, but she suspected it was older.
In fact, this so-called ’50s dessert is at least 75 years old.
In Nabisco’s archives is a 1929 ad for the chocolate wafers. The copy suggests layering the wafers with whipped cream and refrigerating them overnight for an easy, elegant dessert. By 1930, the recipe was printed on each tin of the chocolate wafers.
“And there is a story behind this,” said author Stephen Schmidt, who is working on an in-depth history of American desserts.
This icebox cake, he says, is part of a much-larger group of 1930s refrigerated desserts that have their roots in the late 1800s.
“These refrigerator desserts were quicker, easier ways of making charlottes, a chilled dessert that was hugely fashionable from about 1870 to World War I,” Schmidt said.
A charlotte was made by lining a pan or decorative mold with ladyfingers or sponge cake and filling it with a cooked custard or flavored whipped cream that had been firmed up with gelatin.
At the same time, he said, thin chocolate cookies, always called wafers, had been very fashionable since the 1880s and early 1890s.
“A number of them are in the first Fannie Farmer cookbook and other books of that vintage,” Schmidt said.
It’s not surprising that wafers were among the first commercial cookies.
As food companies began to grow in the 1920s, they looked for better ways to market their products. Complex desserts like the charlotte were reconfigured, Schmidt said, “to make them more accessible to middle-class housewives” and, in Nabisco’s case, to help sell cookies. Unlike the more complicated charlottes, the icebox cake was the essence of speed and simplicity.
Schmidt associates the icebox cake with his grandmother, who made it in the ’30s and ’40s, and his mother, who made it when he was growing up in the ’60s.
“People are rediscovering it,” he said. “They think it’s delicious and so completely simple. It’s not garish or over the top.”
Versions of the dessert have appeared recently in Everyday Food magazine, where the whipped cream was flavored with a little mint extract, and in Fine Cooking magazine, where it was given a more sophisticated twist with coffee and hazelnuts. On the Food Network, chef Sara Moulton has demonstrated a version made with fresh raspberries.
So where can you find the Famous Chocolate Wafers? I trolled the cookie aisles at four supermarkets before I hit pay dirt at a Giant near my home.
As I walked down the aisle, I ignored the eye-level shelves where the most popular, heavily advertised cookies sat. Instead, I stood on tiptoe, searching the top shelf where the less-flashy cookies were stashed. And that’s when I saw them. The narrow, bright yellow box with the clear cellophane-wrapped top. The tightly packed row of dark chocolate wafers just visible inside. I reached up. There were two boxes left. Just enough, I thought, for one cake and lots of wafers left over for snacking.
This sublimely simple refrigerator cake dates from about 1929, when it was created by Uneeda Bakers, a division of the National Biscuit Company, now known simply as Nabisco.
The original recipe calls for just whipping cream, vanilla and the company’s thin chocolate wafers. We’ve found that a little sugar in the cream enhances the flavor. Although more recent versions of the recipe claim that a tub of whipped topping or a can of whipped cream can be substituted for the whipped cream, the freshly whipped stuff tastes the best.
Famous chocolate refrigerator roll
1teaspoon vanilla extract
3-4tablespoons sugar, or to taste
2cups heavy cream, chilled
19-ounce package Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers
Chocolate curls or chocolate wafer crumbs for garnish
In large bowl, combine the vanilla, sugar if desired and cream. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat until stiff peaks form. Spread about 1/2 tablespoon whipped cream on each wafer; you will not use all of the whipped cream. Stack the cream-topped wafers next to one another on a serving platter, standing them on their edge like a row of dominoes, to make a 14-inch log. Use the remaining whipped cream to frost the top and sides of the cookie log. Refrigerate for at least 4 to 6 hours or up to overnight. (The cookies will become cakey, which makes for easier slicing.)
To serve, sprinkle chocolate curls or crushed wafer crumbs on top of the row. Using a knife, cut the cake on the diagonal (at a 45-degree angle) into slices. (The cake slices easily when a warm knife is used; run a knife under hot water then quickly dry it with a clean towel.)
Mint-chocolate: Reduce the vanilla extract to 1/4 teaspoon and add 3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract to the cream before whipping. To serve, garnish with miniature chocolate chips or roughly crushed Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. Adapted from the July/August 2004 issue of Everyday Food magazine.
Raspberry-chocolate: Add a layer of fresh raspberries between every third or fourth wafer as you assemble the cake. Garnish with fresh raspberries before serving. Adapted from the Food Network’s Sara Moulton, as seen on a recent episode of “Sara’s Secrets.”
Double chocolate: Reduce vanilla to 1/4 teaspoon. Reduce sugar to 2 to 3 tablespoons. Mix sugar with 3 to 4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa and add to the cream before whipping.
Makes 10 servings.
Fine Cooking magazine created this sophisticated variation on the Famous Wafer roll. To be sure you have enough cookies, buy two boxes.
Coffee and cream icebox cake
Butter for the loaf pan
13/4cups heavy cream
1tablespoon instant espresso powder
1tablespoon sugar, or more, to taste
44Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (two 9-ounce packages)
1/4cup finely chopped, toasted hazelnuts for garnish
1/4cup chocolate cookie wafer crumbs
Lightly butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Line the pan with 2 long pieces of plastic wrap, allowing the excess plastic to hang over the edges of the pan. There should be enough excess plastic wrap to fold over the top of the pan.
In a large bowl, combine the cream, espresso powder and sugar. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the cream until it holds firm peaks. Spoon about 2/3 of the whipped cream over the bottom of the prepared pan. Tap the pan firmly on the counter to even the cream and eliminate any air bubbles.
Starting at a short side of the pan, stack some of the wafers in the cream, side by side, standing them on their edge in a row like dominoes. Continue down the long side of the pan until you reach the other short side. Repeat with a second row of cookies, but stack the second row so that the edge of each cookie in the second row wedges into the cream between two cookies in the first row. In other words, you want the cookies in the second row to alternate with the pattern of the cookies in the first row. Continue with 2 more rows, alternating, for a total of 4 rows. Press down on the cookies gently.
Cover the rows of cookies with the remaining cream. Using a spatula, smooth the cream, gently pressing to make sure any gaps between the cookies are filled. Tap the pan on the counter several times to eliminate air pockets. If any gaps appear, fill them with more whipped cream.
Cover the cake with the excess plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, preferably two days. (The longer the cookies are refrigerated, the easier the cookies are to slice.) When ready to serve, uncover the top of the plastic wrap from the cake and gently tug on the plastic to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan. Place a cutting board on top of the pan and invert the cake onto the board. Remove the pan, then gently peel away the plastic wrap.
In a bowl, mix the hazelnuts and cookie crumbs. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the top of the cake. Using a knife, slice the cake lengthwise – that is, start at the short end of the pan and run your knife down the length of the pan to the other short end. This method produces the most visual impact. Then cut each of the long slices in half. Each slice should have multiple chocolate stripes alternating with a thin layer of coffee cream. (The cake slices easiest when a warm knife is used; run a knife under hot water then quickly dry it with a clean towel.)
Makes 8 servings.
Adapted from a recipe in the June/July 1999 issue of Fine Cooking magazine
Not so hard to find
To save you the effort, we shopped and called around to find Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. They’re at many local QFC, Albertson’s, Top Foods and Fred Meyer grocery stores. Look on the top shelves in the cookie section.