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How many times, do you think, does it take for something to become a tradition? We're at year three of making icebox cakes every third week in April, and it's starting to feel like it's been our way since forever.

I'm liking it. A whole lot.

After the cakes of everyone else's days of revelry, when we end up on my birthday, this is what we do.

It requires a box of graham crackers, a carton of cream, and this year, a half dozen eggs. A whole half carton, yes, I mean it, because we made coconut pastry cream and it's what took our usual and made it the all-time favourite. The cake is, to all intents, coconut cream pie without the bother of crust and turning on the oven. And despite those subtractions the sum we are left with is the whole shebang of all the its best parts.

It's a step added to past versions, but the pastry cream is a breeze to manage I promise. It's custard that's thickened with a starch in addition to the egg's yolks. It is thick and glossy, and here coconut milk brings flavour and fragrance. Coconut milk has a clean sweetness to its scent, and since there's not too much sugar to muck it up, that elusive essence remains.

Still, I wanted to up the coconut ante so to speak, and my hand settled upon the lid of our jar of shredded coconut. My thought was to not only to further infuse the cream, but I was also thinking of its texture, because I find it difficult to conjure the flavour of coconut without a thought of its chew; most specifically, most ideally, the damp, toothsome centre of a coconut macaroon. And we've got it here in spades.

I had planned on chocolate to pair with the coconut, however a long story, a confusing grocery list, an impending holiday weekend following a weekend of possibly too much of good things, meant I was without the chocolate I wanted, but stumbled upon something even better instead.

Blackberry jam.

A few weeks ago, in a fit of unseasonality, I made blackberry jam in the midst of March. We had frozen berries stocked in our freezer from last season, and in a burst of positive thinking that if I used the icy berries then fresh ones would soon follow at our market, I set about using them up. The jam had sugar, lemon and nothing else besides the fruit.

Now my hand set upon the lid to that jar. I heated a few spoonfuls, added a teacup's worth of fresh (frozen) ones to the thickly bubbling jam, and stirred it all through. Once the fruit squished and softened, barely cooked, I pressed it all through a sieve. Seedless, smooth and glistening, the sauce had body with the direct brightness of fresh fruit. It was the match we needed for our coconut cream - without it the cake would have been too much of the same, all cream and sweet; the jam's the standout, more than chocolate could have been.

It's not often I'll say fruit over chocolate, for the record.

Essential variables sorted, the remaining preparation was as per well-tread habit. Benjamin dealt out graham crackers, our card sharp's getting quite good at Crazy Eights and happy put his skills to culinary use; he lined each up neatly to make a layer in the bottom of the pan. With William's assitance we spread on cream, then jam, and repeated the routine until everything was used up. Overnight, in the cold of the fridge, the crackers turned to cake - puffing up, leveling out, absorbing some of the moisture from the cream so that the filling goes that much more sumptuous. The cake got turned out, slipped into a coat of whipped vanilla cream, and it was ready for the party.


Coconut Cream Icebox Cake
The instructions are for a square cake, which is easier and neater than our attempt at a round. But, if you decide to aim for circular, these amounts will be about right. The cake can also be served, trifle style, in the dish it was made. In that case, you'll only need about 1/2 cup of cream, whipped, to cover the top.

For the Coconut Pastry Cream
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup milk
1 vanilla bean, split
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shredded coconut, see note

For the Blackberry Sauce (makes approximately 1 cup)
1 pound blackberries, hulled and roughly chopped
1/3 cup caster sugar, or thereabouts
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
A pinch of salt

For the cake
2 cups whipping cream, divided
Coconut pastry cream
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar or thereabouts
A pinch of salt
45 honey graham crackers, the single kind
One recipe blackberry sauce, divided


Make the pastry cream. In a medium saucepan heat the coconut milk and milk. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod, stir those into the milks, then pop the pod in too. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then set aside to steep for a few minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch until smooth, pale and fluffy. Slowly and in a thin stream, pour the hot milks into the egg yolks while whisking constantly. Continue whisking until completely combined. Add in the salt and whisk again.

Strain the mixture back into the saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Cook until thickened and the custard boils at its centre. Continue to cook, still whisking well, for another minute.

Off the heat, stir in the shredded coconut. Transfer to a bowl, pressing a piece of clingfilm directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming as the pastry cools. Refrigerate until well chilled and firm, around 2 hours.

To make the sauce, put three-quarters of the berries in medium saucepan with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the salt and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit becomes soft and the juices begin to thicken, around 7-10 minutes.

Carefully remove the blackberries to a blender (or use an immersion style), and process until smooth. Push the puréed sauce through a sieve, back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring again to a simmer, stirring often. Cook the sauce until it becomes truly thick, with a clear, glossy look, around 10 minutes. At this point you want it on the verge of jammy-ness, close to the texture of hot fudge sauce.

Tumble in the reserved berries, give them a few turns in the pan and cook for another minute or so.

Again with care, remove the blackberries to that blender of yours and whirr them around. Sieve again, this time to a clean container, and set the sauce aside to cool. It should be about the consistency of chocolate syrup, rather than fudge, and will coat the back of a spoon thickly, but not heavily. Once it has cooled to a non-molten level, taste for balance and stir in the rest of the sugar and lemon if need be.

To assemble the cake. Line an 8-by-8-inch metal cake pan with a cross of clingfilm, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip 3/4 cup of well-chilled heavy cream until the cream begins to hold soft peaks. Take the coconut pastry cream, give it a stir or two to make sure it's smooth, then fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream.

Spread a small amount of the coconut cream on the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Lay 9 crackers, in a 3-by-3 grid, on top of the cream. Spoon one-quarter of the cream on top of the crackers. Then, using an offset spatula, gently spread the cream to cover the crackers entirely. Drizzle a few tablespoons of the blackberry sauce over the cream, spreading to form an even layer if desired. (You will use a generous 1/2 cup of the sauce for the entire cake.)

Top with another layer of graham crackers, continuing the layering until you have 5 layers of crackers and 4 of the pastry cream and blackberry. Make sure to reserve a small amount of cream to cover the last layer of crackers (no sauce on this one).

Cover loosely with a piece of clingfilm, then draw the overhanging clingfilm from the sides up to cover the edges. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days.

About 1 hour before serving, remove the cake from the fridge and peel back the clingfilm. Invert the cake onto a serving plate, removing the remaining clingfilm from the top and sides. Smooth out the sides with an offset spatula if needed. Place the cake in the freezer, uncovered, to chill for 30 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip the remaining 1 1/4 cup of well-chilled heavy cream. When the cream begins to thicken, sift in the 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar. With the machine set to medium-high, whip the cream until holds a firm peak, but being careful not to over beat.

Take the cake out of the refrigerator and gently spread a thin layer of the whipped cream to cover. Chill the finished cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then serve with the remaining blackberry sauce passed alongside.

Makes one 8-inch square cake.


  • Sweetened or unsweetened shredded coconut can be used, depending on your taste. The granulated sugar may need to be adjusted accordingly.
  • In the case you do not have both jam and fresh fruit on hand, this recipe was written with a from-scratch berry sauce. If you do, then simply heat around a 1/4 cup of blackberry jam in a saucepan over medium heat. When it at a simmer, add 1/2 cup fresh blackberries to the pot. Stir, cooking the fruit briefly, then proceed with the blending and straining of the sauce as detailed above. 
  • The thing about fruit sauces is that so much will depend on the fruit itself. You might need more or less sugar than I've suggested. This recipe will make around 1 cup, but it might be more or less depending on the juiciness of the fruit and how thick your final sauce ends up. Any leftover sauce can be used over to drizzle over ice cream or stirred into yogurt. It's also rather good as the base of a berried champagne cocktail (which gets my vote).
  • Previous icebox cakes can be seen here and here


Reader Comments (31)

Wow.....that's an awesome cake.....looks delectable....

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLubna Karim

I am extremely captivated by these cakes that you have been sharing. They are simple and just beautiful - lovely job.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

What a stunner! Icebox cakes are a tradition in our family, too -- my sister's favorite, and we always make one for her birthday. I love them on Easter as well; there's something so springy about them, with fresh hand-whipped cream and berries.

Looks like you likely had a beautiful day yesterday. I hope so!

This cake is stunning!

This cake looks amazing, and I wish I could bring myself to try it... maybe starting out a tradition will be my motivation?

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoa

Sounds like a tradition to me. My skills at cake baking and decorating are no where near yours. Your cakes are gorgeous and sound delicious.


April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSense of Home

My birthday is in 2 weeks - care to come to Vancouver and make me a cake as beautiful? Seriously Tara, I am amazed at your cake skills. Right up there with your writing and photography! You are a trifecta of awesomeness.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkickpleat

We must be really missing out. Why haven't I ever heard of an icebox cake? I like the idea of the cookies/crackers puffing up in the icebox over night. This sounds so interesting. I also like the simplicity of your raspberry cake. Happy Birthday!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersnippets of thyme

This sounds and looks heavenly. I love a good blackberry sauce.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJOy

This is such a beautiful and festive cake! Love the coconut pastry cream and the blackberry sauce, I can only imagine how scrumptious this must be!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaria @ ScandiFoodie

I like this one (too bad the inside is not shown!), might be the first icebox cake I make. Fruit over chocolate is not going to be easy but I would give it a shot.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpickyin @ LifeIsGreat

I think I must have grown up in a cave, as I've never heard of icebox cakes, and have never tasted blackberry jam. I do, however, have a can of coconut milk in the cupboard that's been waiting to be put to good use. Better late than never, right? Thank you!

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmaranthian

Happy Tuesday, folks! It's wonderful to see so many who share my fondness for icebox cakes, and equally-fun to introduce this treat to others! If any of you give it a try, please let us know how they turned out! Would love that.

snippets of thyme and Amaranthian, iceboxcakes are a dream, really. The cookies truly change their character entirely, puffing up and their texture going to a consistency much closer to soaked ladyfingers in trifle - but softer and more cake-like.

For those interested, a messy photo of the interior is here.

Jeanette, if these mailed well, one would be on its way to you right now. Happy early birthday!

April 26, 2011 | Registered Commentertara o'brady

Good lord. Delicious. So many steps. What devotion!

April 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason Hudson Dot Com

just gorgeous. :)

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

Tara - Just casted my vote for you at Have loved your work since the first day I discovered this site. Your photo's have such a natural, unpretentious feel; truly unique. Good Luck!! - david

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ellis

I haven't had many icebox cakes, but the few I've had definitely didn't look this good - the cake is gorgeous and the coconut flavoring sounds divine!

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfortycloves

i still dream of my favorite, quadruple-decker, coconut layer cake. i never imagined it in an icebox iteration, but now, i'm intrigued...

April 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermolly

The cake is utterly beautiful.

April 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

as if i didn't already love coconut enough, now i see this work of art!

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjustcooknyc

So pure and pretty! And I love starting new traditions!

That is a truly gorgeous looking cake. You'd never be able to tell it's an icebox cake, which such a lovely surprise. Hurrah for new traditions!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLimeCake

Oh, the lighting in that image is out of this world. I've been wanting to tuck blackberry jam into a cake for a good long while, inspired by my grandma's jam cake.

And congrats on the Saveur nomination! Well deserved.

May 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKimberley

Blackberries over chocolate?! That seems almost blasphemous! Looks like I'll have to try it for myself just to see if you're right ;)
Could you post the recipe for your jam? If I'm gonna do it, then I should definitely do it right!
~Nancy Lewis~

May 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRecipes Clubs

Oh wow! This coconut ice box cake looks amazing. Not sure if mine will look 1/2 as nice
as yours but sure going to try. Great blog.

Wartrol Oral Spray

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

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