About once a year, if you open my freezer for something normal, like ice, you'll find a big tub of Cool Whip — and that's never going to change. I indulge when I'm making my grandmother's family famous coconut cake because there's no substitution for the sweet and creamy goodness that is Cool Whip. It brings back great memories for me. It means a special occasion, a surprise dessert, and family fun.
I love fresh, hand-whisked whipped cream. There's no denying how perfect it is over strawberries and homemade sweet biscuits, even if you use Bisquick to make them. Bisquick, which, by the way, is another product you can pry out of my cold, dead hands because, goshdarnit, it makes things easier. But that's another story for another day.
I remember the first time I had "real" whipped cream, after a lifetime of Cool Whip, which was called "whipped cream" in my house. My friend Margaret invited several of us to the beach. We were in middle school, old enough to talk about our romantic aspirations but a year or 10 away from doing anything about them. I remember a lot of giggling and at least one faux casual walk down the beach to look at boys who likely ignored us. (They were totally ignoring us. I have three sons now and I know.) I was still young enough to get really, really excited when I found out we were having strawberry shortcake — for breakfast. The shortcake my friend's mother made was nothing like I had ever tasted: She topped homemade sweet biscuits with fresh strawberries and a big dollop of lightly sweetened (actually whipped) whipped cream. It was a life-changing food moment I'll never forget. But I'm still not giving up my Cool Whip, because it's a different animal.
When we saw Cool Whip in the fridge when we were little, it meant something awesome was coming.
Unlike whipped cream, Cool Whip holds its shape in adverse circumstances. If you want a smooth, almost cartoon-like dollop for a piece of pie, Cool Whip will look just like the picture. When you're serving 30 pieces of pie in a hot kitchen at the same time on a holiday, that's a good quality.
Cool Whip is the harbinger of something special, at least it was in my family. When we saw Cool Whip in the fridge when we were little, it meant something awesome was coming. I remember strawberry shortcake, which my mom made with those spongy little cups, strawberries, and Cool Whip. My sister remembers chocolate peanut butter pie. There was also some sort of ice cream and frozen candy bar layered concoction in a casserole dish as well.
It's also tough enough to withstand freezing. Have you ever had frozen Cool Whip? I snuck spoonfuls of it here and there, because most recipes don't require a full tub, so the leftovers go in the freezer. Can you freeze fresh whipped cream? Technically yes, but it's not the same. Now do you get why Cool Whip is great?
There's a downside to Cool Whip's freezability — especially if your mother is known for frugality. Mom used an empty Cool Whip tub to save small amounts of leftover vegetables. When the tub was full, she'd make vegetable soup, and I loved that soup. But when you see a tub of Cool Whip and run to get a spoon so you can get to it before anyone catches you, the last thing you want when you peel back the lid is a handful of frozen peas, carrots, and green beans. But life is full of surprises, and some of them are a lot worse than frozen veggies, so it's a good lesson learned by way of the blue-and-white tub.
But back to my grandmother's coconut cake, which is beautiful, delicious, and iced entirely in Cool Whip. That cake, which I make from the recipe card she wrote and filed with her favorites years ago, is a lesson in love, marriage, and setting limits in the kitchen. When I inherited the recipe, with absolutely no fanfare, because Grandmother Marie wasn't one for unnecessary fanfare, I did a little research. The recipe probably came from the newspaper or a church cookbook, where it's often referred to as "3-Day Coconut Cake," because it really is better after a few days. Could hand-whipped cream survive three days in the fridge and come out looking fresh as a daisy? I think not.
I'm sure there's a homemade substitute for Cool Whip. After all, I've made my own versions of Bisquick, canned cream of mushroom soup, and even mayonnaise (no offense to the French, but Duke's will always be the real thing to me). But Cool Whip is easy, delicious, and full of nostalgia. If it was good enough for Grandmother and Mom, it's more than good enough for me.