Here is one of my all-time favorite desserts: It looks and tastes like a dessert casserole, but it spends no time whatsoever in the oven. It is an icebox cake composed of layers of graham crackers and fresh, homemade vanilla pudding, topped with fudge frosting. When it sits together in the fridge overnight, it melds into a luxurious cake-like texture. So yummy, and easy, too!
This is a recipe my mom used to make for potlucks and summer picnics, and I loved it so much I wanted to include it in my book. But I didn't like using pudding mix from a box and chocolate frosting from a can. Yes, you can do that, and if you do it makes this dessert extremely fast and easy. But I do not like the weird aftertaste of pudding mix, and honestly, it is so easy to whip up your own vanilla pudding from scratch.
But even with making your own homemade pudding from scratch, this recipe doesn't take more than an hour to put together, and then it is all done. Since it needs to be refrigerated before serving, it's the perfect thing to make ahead of time for a dinner party. I love making this the night before a big party, or even the morning of. People always go wild for it.
And speaking of graham crackers, I don't usually recommend specific brands of ingredients for recipes, but here I've had the best results with Honey Maid graham crackers. Less expensive brands tend to be lighter and not as substantial, and I find that they get too soggy. Now, Honey Maid (from Nabisco/Kraft) does have partially-hydrogenated oil in some of their products, as well as high fructose corn syrup. This may have changed recently in their graham crackers, but check the ingredients carefully, if you want to avoid such things. If you don't use Honey Maid, do look for the heaviest, heartiest graham crackers you can find.
Serves 8 to 10
About 20 ounces (4 sleeves) graham crackers
For the custard
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 large eggs
3 egg yolks
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups half-and-half
2 teaspoons vanilla
For the chocolate frosting
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Line the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with graham crackers, using about a quarter of them and breaking some in half if necessary. Set aside.
2. To make the custard, place the cornstarch in a small bowl. In a second small bowl, whisk together the eggs and egg yolks. Set both aside.
3. In a deep, heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and stir in the sugar. Add the salt and half-and-half, and stir. Warm over medium heat until bubbles form around the edges of the liquid. Do not let it boil. When the half-and-half mixture is hot, turn off the heat.
4. Pour a ladleful of the hot half-and-half mixture into the small bowl holding cornstarch. Whisk vigorously to combine. The mixture should come together smoothly, with no lumps; if there are any lumps, add a little more liquid and whisk them out. Pour this cornstarch mixture into the beaten eggs. Whisk vigorously to combine.
5. Pour the egg mixture into the pot, and turn the heat on to medium. Whisk continuously and vigorously, working all the angles of the pot and scraping the bottom. Continue whisking for about 5 minutes, or until the custard becomes very thick and starts to boil, with large bubbles that slowly rise to the surface. Turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla.
6. Spread one-third of the pudding evenly over the graham crackers. Top with a layer of graham crackers, and spread half of the remaining pudding over that layer. Add a third layer of graham crackers and top with the remaining pudding. Cover the top of the pudding with a final layer of graham crackers. Set aside.
7. To make the frosting, melt the butter with the cocoa powder in a small saucepan. Bring to a light simmer over medium-low heat and let it bubble for 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and cook for 3 more minutes, letting the mixture bubble up around the edges. Remove from the heat and beat in the confectioners' sugar with a whisk or hand beater. When the mixture is smooth, beat in the vanilla. While the frosting is still quite hot and liquid, pour it over the top layer of graham crackers and smooth with a hot knife or spatula dipped in hot water.
8. Cover the layered dessert with a lid or aluminum foil and refrigerate. (If using foil, be careful not to let it touch the top of the dessert, as it will stick to the frosting and spoil the look.) Refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours and up to 2 days before slicing and serving. Serve chilled.
• Reprinted from Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand. (Harvard Common Press, January 2011)
(Images: Sabra Krock; Faith Durand)