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How fans of icebox cakes are coping without key ingredient: Nabisco chocolate wafers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For many people, the taste of summer is an icebox cake - whipped cream layered with cookies. And one of the most iconic versions features a very particular cookie - Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. But earlier this year, after nearly a hundred years of production, Nabisco stopped making them. Deena Prichep has the story of the icebox cake and what fans of those chocolate wafers are doing now.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: People who love icebox cakes really love icebox cakes.

JESSIE SHEEHAN: The cookies literally absorb the whipped cream and turn into, like, the softest, most delicious, almost like a cake pudding - like, so unbelievably good.

PRICHEP: Jessie Sheehan wrote a whole cookbook about icebox cakes. She has recipes using lemon crisps and pairing ginger snaps with chai whipped cream. But her favorite is the classic, using Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers.

SHEEHAN: You could eat that cookie by itself. It just has the most delicious, kind of slightly bitter but still a teeny bit sweet chocolate flavor.

PRICHEP: Combine that bittersweet cookie with sweet cream, let it sit in the fridge for a few hours, and it's done. The popularity of these desserts dates back to the rise of refrigeration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Frigidaire division of General Motors presents America's No. 1 refrigerator.

PRICHEP: Part of early refrigerator promotion included corporate cookbooks, which contained recipes for icebox cakes.

MEGAN ELIAS: They want people to value the refrigerator. So they have to kind of create a new cuisine that makes people think of their refrigerator as indispensable.

PRICHEP: Historian Megan Elias directs the food studies program at Boston University.

ELIAS: Refrigerators don't get affordable until the 1920s, and then that's when you really begin to see the craze of the icebox cakes.

PRICHEP: Elias says early recipes used sponge cake or ladyfingers, things people had to bake at home. But when packaged cakes and cookies came along, the icebox cake got even easier to make. Eventually, the National Biscuit Company, aka Nabisco, printed a recipe right on the package of their Famous Chocolate Wafers, which became a classic.

ELIAS: It's not a bottom-up recipe. It's very much like green bean casserole, where it comes from the corporation, and yet it becomes so much part of people's lives. It's something they remember from childhood.

PRICHEP: So what do you do when one of the main ingredients of that childhood memory disappears from the shelves? There are other chocolate cookies - Oreos, chocolate shortbreads. But devotees of the classic version say those don't have quite the same flavor or texture. So to make this no-bake summertime cake, some are resorting to turning on their ovens. Baker and cookbook author Zoe Francois came up with a recipe that she says is pretty darn close to the original.

ZOE FRANCOIS: I landed on using cake flour because these cookies really have a delicate snap to them.

PRICHEP: And then a cocoa powder that adds the right flavor and color for that zebra-striped effect in the finished cake.

FRANCOIS: I use a Dutch process, which is a darker cocoa.

PRICHEP: Francois also adds baking soda because the alkalinity makes the dough even darker - food science. Bake the cookies up, spread on the whipped cream, and it's an icebox cake. These current versions with homemade cookies or alternate brands may taste slightly different, but they're just the latest chapter in the same story. Historian Megan Elias.

ELIAS: So it's a good story because it's about industrialization and food, but also, it's just about delight, right?

PRICHEP: And about a dessert that is perfect on a hot summer day no matter what the cookie. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

CHANG: If you want to make your own chocolate wafers, Zoe Francois' recipe is on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep