I'll be honest: dirt cake has never really been my thing. Most versions involve pudding filled with fake flavoring, gobs of non-dairy whipped topping and Day-Glo gummy worms — a dream come true for kids or a big crowd of drunk dudes (more on that later), but I need a little more. Like two layers of homemade pudding, one lightly salted peanut butter, the other dark chocolate, that together taste like the grown up version of a Reese's peanut butter cup, sandwiched between two layers of crumbled cookie.
And because it's Halloween, and this is still a dirt cake, it's topped with a fun mini graveyard, made with Nutter Butter cookies and whipped cream ghosts.
I am not officially the dirt cake expert in my house. That honor goes to my husband, Rob, who makes a giant dirt cake every summer for the annual crawfish boil he hosts with friends. Its ingredients are one store-bought chocolate sheet cake, several tubs of Kozy Shack pudding, a package of crushed Oreos and Cool Whip. He serves it in a giant plastic flower pot with flowers sticking out of the top and it is always a hit with the partygoers drunk on beer and crawfish tails.
I am the only naysayer. Every year I try to nudge him into swapping out one of the packaged ingredients for a homemade replacement ("How about whipped cream instead of Cool Whip? Please? I'll whip it for you!") and he keeps refusing, saying that everyone loves his dirt cake, so why would he change it? He's right. His dirt cake is his dirt cake and he doesn't need to change it.
This dirt cake, however, is my dirt cake, so I get to make it exactly how I like. And that means adapting one of my favorite peanut butter and chocolate layered pudding recipes, increasing the salt in the peanut layer and replacing the milk chocolate with imported dark chocolate for a richer flavor with more depth. Although making not one but two puddings from scratch is a good deal more difficult than opening a container of Kozy Shack, that doesn't mean the process is actually difficult. Cornstarch-thickened pudding cooks up quickly, and once the pudding layers are poured over the bottom layer of chocolate cookie chunks, it's waiting for them to chill in the refrigerator that is the killer.
If you plan on making the dirt cake for an occasion other than Halloween, you can skip the decorating — just sprinkle cookie crumbs over the top and serve it with whipped cream — but for a themed party, the Nutter Butter gravestones and whipped cream ghosts are a must. No matter how dressed up, it's still dirt cake after all. It's supposed to be fun!
Peanut Butter & Chocolate Graveyard Dirt Cake
For the toppings:
20 chocolate cream sandwich cookies, such as Oreos, divided
8 Nutter Butter cookies, divided
1/2 cup cold heavy cream
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
Black or brown icing
For the peanut butter pudding:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
5 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup creamy natural peanut butter (made with just peanuts and salt)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the dark chocolate pudding:
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Make the toppings: Place half of the chocolate cookies in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse a few times until broken up roughly. Transfer to an 8-inch square baking dish and spread into an even layer. Place the remaining chocolate cookies in the food processor and process into fine crumbs. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Brush out the food processor bowl with a towel. Add 4 of the Nutter Butter cookies and process into fine crumbs; set aside. (If you don't have a food processor, you can crush the cookies in a resealable bag with a rolling pin or other heavy kitchen implement.)
Make the peanut butter pudding: Place the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a large, heavy saucepan and whisk to combine. Slowly whisk in the milk, followed by the cream. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Boil, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 30 seconds.
Whisk in peanut butter and boil, whisking frequently, until thickened again, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla. Pour over the coarse chocolate cookie crumbs in the baking dish and smooth the surface with an offset spatula. Refrigerate uncovered while making the chocolate pudding.
Make the dark chocolate pudding: Place the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa powder, and salt in a large, heavy saucepan (or clean, dry, and reuse the peanut butter pudding saucepan) and whisk to combine, making sure to break up any cocoa powder lumps. Slowly whisk in the milk, followed by the cream. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Boil, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 30 seconds.
Whisk in the chopped chocolate and boil, whisking frequently, until the chocolate is melted and the pudding thickens again, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla. Let cool for 5 minutes. Pour over the peanut butter pudding layer and smooth the surface with an offset spatula. Refrigerate uncovered for 2 hours.
To decorate: Decorate the 4 remaining Nutter Butter Cookies with icing to look like gravestones. Sprinkle the reserved fine chocolate cookie crumbs evenly over the surface of the chocolate pudding. Press the "gravestones" vertically into the pudding and make a pile of Nutter Butter cookie crumbs at the base of each.
Whip the remaining 1/2 cup cold cream and powdered sugar together until firm peaks form. Pipe or spoon piles of the whipped cream next to the gravestones and decorate with icing to look like ghosts. Serve with more whipped cream, if desired.
Make ahead: The puddings can be made one day ahead. After chilling uncovered for 2 hours, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to decorate. Store the processed cookie crumbs in separate airtight containers.
For a sweeter, more kid-friendly dessert, replace the dark chocolate with good-quality milk chocolate.
Pudding recipes adapted from Bon Appetit.