Icebox Cake with Meringue Mushrooms

Cakes • 11 Jan 2015

My husband’s early January birthday always feels like an afterthought, the de trop pair of socks among an assemblage of shinier, more sparkly gift offerings. Early January hovers in a post-New Years hangover purgatory along with empty champagne bottles, jettisoned Christmas trees and rubbish bags of rumpled gift paper. Gravity obstinately pulls us into a new year where we’re forced to reconcile our inevitable aging and resolutions of better selves within a snow globe of harsh, uncompromising winter.

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To soften the striking blow of post-holiday doldrums, we cook up an unbridled feast for our tiny family. In spite of the oversaturation that characterizes late December, we press on in glutinous glory to celebrate our beloved family member, the pivot of our household, the person that supports, nourishes and anchors our heartstrings.

Our outstretched arms labor lovingly over individual balls of pasta dough, flour snowing onto our chilly bare toes, escaped egg slushing on the countertop. We laugh and playfully bicker while we work, the thrifty duo of ingredients caking my butcher block and our hands. I allow my boys to delve into the kneading, rhythmically pushing and working the dough until soft and pliable. While they prime the pasta, I tend to the cake.

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With the uncompromising swirl of haunting winter winds fluttering through the atmosphere, I feel inspired to create a snowy woodland scene, a rustic mountain of stark white topped with whimsical meringue mushrooms. And my husband requests icebox cake with hand rolled chocolate wafer cookies, a densely rich but not overly saccharine affair. Piles and piles of delicately sweetened whipped cream house a cocoa-rich cake. The benignly sweet biscuits begin crispy, almost overly brittle. They crackle and crunch when they hit the teeth, crumbs shattering, chocolate particles speckling my shirt and fingertips. The flavor is intensely chocolate.

Layer upon layer of cookies are stacked high, ripples of cream cementing the eminent dome. I fill in the blanks with a pastry bag, piping cream in the crevices to create an even canvas and provide support for exposed edges. When enveloped in velutinous cream, the cookies soak up milky moisture leaving a superbly luscious, cakey dessert.

Since I’ve been on a meringue kick lately, the mushrooms were an obvious choice and the realistic nature of the cake topper was astoundingly dramatic in contrast with the starkly snow-white cake. For meringues I use 1/4 cup of sugar per large egg white. I made extra mushrooms for snacking but you could surround the base of the cake with mushrooms; I was rather restrained in my embellishments.

We were madly in love with the cake and I felt so grateful to be able to create such beauty for one of the most beautiful people in my life.

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Ice Box Cake with Meringue Mushrooms

About 35-40 chocolate wafer cookies
3-4 cups heavy cream
4 tablespoons powdered sugar

4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 ounces white chocolate chips

1. I use this Gourmet Magazine recipe for chocolate wafer cookies using a 2-inch round cookie cutter (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Double-Chocolate-Sandwich-Cookies-240937), but you can use packaged as well.

2. To make the whipped cream, pour the cream and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix using the whisk attachment, until medium to stiff peaks form. Don’t over whip the cream or it will look chunky and won’t spread easily.

3. On a flat plate or cake stand, arrange about 4 cookies in a circle with one in the center, slightly overlapping, and top with about 1/2 cup whipped cream. Repeat with cookies and whipped cream until you have about 8 layers. You may have leftover cookies. Spread remaining whipped cream over the top and along the sides of the cake, filling in any gaps between the layers to support the cookies. Use offset spatula to accomplish a rustic look with the cream.

4. Let the cream harden in the refrigerator for a few hours and then cover loosely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

5. To make the meringue mushrooms, line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees with racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

6. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form. Increase speed to medium-high and add sugar, 1-2 tablespoons at a time. Whisk for about 8 minutes, until meringue is stiff and glossy.

7. Spoon meringue into a large pastry big fitting with a 1/2-inch or a 3/4-inch tip. First pipe the caps. Hold the pastry bag close to the parchment paper and pipe upright and with steady pressure until 2-inch rounds form. Quickly twist the pastry bag after piping each mushroom cap. Smooth out any peaks with a clean, lightly wet fingertip.

8. To pipe the stems, hold the pastry bag close to the parchment and slowly begin piping in an upright motion. You want the stems to be about 2 inches tall, with the base a bit thicker than the top. Twist the pastry bag to release the meringue. Don’t worry about smoothing the tops. Use a sifter to sprinkle the caps and stems with cocoa powder. Blow off excess cocoa to give the mushrooms a realistic appearance.

9. Bake for two hours, switching racks halfway through. Turn off oven and let meringues cool inside.

10. To assemble mushrooms, first melt the milk chocolate in a double boiler or for about a 40 seconds to a minute in the microwave. Using an offset spatula, spread chocolate on the underside of the mushroom caps. Set aside to dry. Melt white chocolate and spread on top of the milk chocolate. Cut off tops of stems and dab on a little white chocolate. Let mushrooms harden, stem side up, on a cookie sheet.

11. Decorate cake as desired. Mushrooms stick to whipped cream easily. Use excess melted chocolate to stick mushrooms to cake stand or serving tray.

Yield: 1 cake that feeds about 12 people, and about 20 mushrooms.

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