Retro Refrigerator Cakes: Dirt and Zebras, Oh My!

What kind of chilled, swirly confection lives in you, old refrigerator?

What kind of chilled, swirly confection lives in you, old refrigerator?

So, guess what I did a couple of Fridays ago.  Give up?  Fine.  I went with my wonderful friend and neighbor, Susan, to her daughter's third grade class to help them make dirt cake.  Here's how that happened.  I was lounging around on the divan, eating bon bons and petting the kitties, when Susan called, asking me for my Culinary Expertise.  I quickly sat up, donning my Grown Up Chef Hat, bon bons and cats scattering to the Four Corners.  "So, what can I do for you?" I queried.  Susan told me all about the dirt cake, and she had some questions about making it.  I asked her what was in it, and she listed cream cheese and butter and sugar and vanilla and crushed up Oreo cookies.  And then, she said The Words:  Instant Pudding and CCCCOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL  WWWWHHHHIIIIIIIPPPP (read that in a really deep, really slowed down voice).  Dear Lord, is it not possible to get away from Cool Whip?  I guess the answer is a big fat NO.

Let me stop for just a minute and let you guys know how great Susan and her family are.  We are so thrilled to be their neighbors we can hardly stand it.  Susan is funny and fun and smart, and she accepts my strange working-in-my-jammies job and is generally fun to hang out with.  Her lovely husband, Chuck, is wonderful too.  We hang out over there in the evenings sometimes, enjoying Adult Beverages and talking and laughing and laughing.  And Jackson, their son, is going to help us with our Scary Halloween Extravaganza.  We're going to wrap him up in tea-dyed cheese cloth so he can Wreak Havoc on our Haunted Trail as a mummy.  It's going to be Awesome.  Jackson is a Very Good Sport.  Sophie is delightful.  She reminds me of myself as a kid, which is kind of a fun thing.  She has a great sense of humor, and she loves our kittens.  When we go Away for a weekend, she and Susan come over and play with the chill-ren and make sure they are fed and happy.   They also have a big muddy, slobbery dog.  His name is Howard, and he is a Piece of Work.  We like him a lot, too.  So, everyone  understand this:  just because I hate Cool Whip doesn't mean that I don't love The Hansens.

Now, back to Gentle and Loving Ridicule.  There was a whole Episode on the phone wherein butter melted in 4 seconds in the microwave.  Four seconds?  Really?!  Out of the fridge?!  What kind of Mutant Microwave are these people using?  That explains the gentle glow they give off at night.  At any rate, I told Susan I'd be right over, so I slapped on a baseball hat and wandered over to their place.  Turns out,  it wasn't butter that melted.  It was margarine.  A very different animal, and one I Fear.

This whole dirt cake deal involved creaming together some cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar and then folding it together with an Instant Pudding/Cool Whip death duo.  Then, that gets layered in a Vessel (they suggest a clean flowerpot.  We used a bowl) with crushed chocolate cookies and Gummi Worms.  Then, you chill the Whole Deal and scoop it out, worms and all.  Yum?  Well, I think it could be Yum, but I'd make a chocolate mousse for the goo and some homemade chocolate wafers instead of using every form of hydrogenated fat known to man.  I guess there is some strange satisfaction to be had from making Dr. Mengele's Death Cake, but at the moment, it escapes me.

Anyway, we mixed up our chocolate goo and headed off to Sophie's school.  I had The Best Time there.  'Member that I used to be a Special Education Teacher?  I fell back into my role pretty smoothly.  In someone else's classroom.  At one point, a little girl in a pink shirt raised her hand and I actually Called on Her.  Oops.  After that, I tried to sit on my hands and let the lesson go where it would.  I did gravitate to some of the more squirrely children in the classroom.  I enjoy the squirrely ones.

Here is a Reasonable Facsimile of the Dirt Cake we made.  Of course I didn't take any pictures.  Remember, I ran over there In Haste to save Susan from the industrial strength killer microwave.

Do click on the picture and read the caption over at flickr.  The last sentence made me laugh and laugh.  You'll see why.

Do click on the picture and read the caption over at flickr. The last sentence made me laugh and laugh. You'll see why.

So then, yesterday, I wandered over to The Daily Spud.  There's a giveaway going on right now.  If you live in the Ireland-ish area, you could win tickets to a Keen Chocolate Festival.  If you don't live in Ireland-ish, you could win a book on chocolate.  Anyway, she posted a recipe that is basically just a chocolaty-buttery ganache with Digestive Biscuits mixed in.  You chill the whole deal and then just slice off slabs of the stuff.  I know, right?!   It's like a DIY Gourmet Kit Kat bar.  This confection put me in mind of what I refer to as Zebra Cake and what others refer to as Nabisco's Famous Chocolate Wafer Cake.

I first heard about this cake when I was a kid reading a Judy Blume book.  I can't remember if it was Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret or Deenie or what, but I do remember that the parents had gone out, and Our Herione was home alone with a box of wafer cookies and a can some sort of Pressurized Whipping Cream.  She made the cake by stacking the wafer cookies together with whipped cream until she had a Log O' Cookie.  Then, she swirled the whipped cream attractively all over the outside of the log.  It ended up looking like an albino buche de Noel.  In a good way, of course.  This scene has stuck with me for probably thirty or so years:  whipped cream layered with chocolate cookies.  Oh, hooray; yes, please!

I didn't get around to making one of these guys until years and years later.  I searched high and low for the Special Cookies (search high--they're usually on the top shelf at the grocery store.  Sometimes they're on one end or the other of the cookie aisle.  Sometimes they live with the ice cream cones and stuff.  You're welcome.) and some whipping cream and I just Went For It.  After all, it's not like it was rocket science.  It's cookies and whipped cream.  I've seen folks make them so they look like Schema for Cake, but I prefer them in log form.  I'm not going to give a recipe for this stuff--I trust that you'll all be fine.  I will suggest that you can flavor your whipping cream however you'd like.  You can even change up the cookies.  I'm thinking that ginger snaps might work quite nicely for a Thanksgiving Treat, thankyouverymuch.

Thank you, Judy Blume, for introducing me to this particular heaven.

Thank you, Judy Blume, for introducing me to this particular heaven.

You've made it this far; now it's time for the Tie In.  I prolly should have taken care of that way up at the top, but I didn't want to start with a Thesis Statement.  So, here we go.  That we can enjoy (or not) Dirt Cake and Zebra Cake rests totally on the advent of refrigeration.  Once the refrigerator made its appearance in homes, recipes for "icebox cakes" proliferated.  Cakes that really weren't cakes at all--layers of gooey, crunchy and creamy that came together in the chill of the refrigerator to make a Spectacular Dessert.  As an aside, Jell-o also got a big boost when refrigerators started popping up in everyone's kitchen.  Here is a Most Excellent History of the Ice Box Cake for your enjoyment and edification.

So, do you have any favorite, or infamous, recipes for ice box cakes?  Better Than Sex Cake, perhaps?  Better Than Robert Redford Cake?  I'd love to hear all about it.  Bonus points for use of Gummi candy of any kind.


  1. says

    One of the many reasons I love my visits to PMAT – where else would I get to hear about Dr. Mengele’s Death Cake and industrial strength killer microwaves? So glad that you were able to spring to the rescue in the matter of the dirt cake and wrest it from the arms of that whipped-cream-substitute-stuff.

    On the ice-box cake front, well, you already have one of those from me. The other childhood classic of the genre over here is/are rice krispie buns – melted chocolate mixed with rice krispies, chilled in little individual bun cases. Every kids birthday party had to have some!

      • Tracey says

        In Australia we call the rice krispie buns “Chocolate Crackles” and the ingredients include:

        Rice Bubbles, icing sugar, desiccated coconut, cocoa powder and Copha (a vegetable fat shortening made from hydrogenated coconut oil which is 100% fat and 98% of that is saturated fat). No wonder my arteries are clogged.. 🙂

  2. says

    I’m baaaaack! 8-D

    Y’know, I’ve never had either of these cakes although I’ve always wanted dirt cake – I’m still kid enough to love the whole ‘it’s dirt — but not really!’ idea. (That and the fact it’s chocolate). I don’t know if it falls under the category but my icebox cake is Mr. Noodle’s birthday cake: mint chocolate fudge. The original recipe is white box mix using crème de menthe in place of the liquid, a can – if you can still find it- of Hershey’s hot fudge, and [GASP!] Cool Whip.

    Not to worry: I ‘de-artificialized’ it by making all parts from scratch (remember my Good Heavens’ cupcakes?) But I do kinda miss the lightheadedness that comes from eating Cool Whip – like too much helium!

    • says

      I never considered the helium factor when I eschewed Cool Whip. Maybe just on weekends…. 😆

      Most of the time, I think it’s always better to make elements from scratch as opposed to using boxed stuff. I won’t say I’ve never bought Cozy Shack pudding or Philadelphia Cheesecake Filling, though! 😳 So maybe I’m a little embarrassed by this, but I thought I’d better come clean!

      Glad you’re back, TN! 😀

  3. Michele Heaton says

    I took my cat to our vet’s office one year, right before Christmas. Another customer had brought a dirt cake to the office, as a thank you. The office was sharing the cake with the other customers. They couldn’t find any plastic plates or bowls lying around, so they decided to improvise. Everyone enjoyed their dirt cake served in small, individual, disposable kitty litter boxes. It seemed appropriate, somehow.


  4. says

    Oh my glob!!!

    I remember the Judy Blume book. I knew the recipe from:

    Mom doubtless sold that when she sold the house. Um.

    As for dirt, I remember a dirtcake that had globs of unicorporated fat and was actually kind of nasty. Actually it was just nasty.

    –chocolaty-buttery ganache with Digestive Biscuits mixed in.

    THAT sounds absolutely heavenly!!!

    Better than Robert Sean Leonard Cake?

    Don’t have a recipe.

  5. says

    I remember reading about icebox cakes when I was a kid and never having any idea what they were – we didn’t do that kind of thing in our house. My mom DID make a dirt cake once, though. It was for Halloween and gummi worms abounded! (Later she would go on to healthier treats, like farm-fresh apples with holes drilled into them and gummi worms stuffed inside, which she brought to the elementary school’s Halloween party where they were surprisingly one of the most popular items every year.)

  6. says

    We used to make zebra cake every Christmas – I think we may have actually referred to it as “Yule Log.” You will be pleased to know that we always used real whipped cream, and that one year my brother and I decided to dye it red and green and then alternate the layers. We had to make the outside white, though, something about Mom wanting it to look pretty/sophisticated on the table.

    • says

      I wish Zebra Cake was our official Christmas dessert. I knew that your creativity started when you were young:) Nice of you to bow to your mom’s wish for a Sophisticated Zebra Cake!


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