Ice cream cakes were part of my childhood birthday party experience, but my first memorable ones weren’t until I was in my 30s, when I encountered the spectacular ones at Toscanini’s, a renowned scoop shop in Cambridge, Mass., that happened to be down the street from the restaurant where I worked at the time. The triple-decker confections were how we celebrated staff birthdays, the layers of cold, rich ice cream strewn with crunchy cookies or candy; gooey fudge; and plush cake, all wrapped up in a smooth coat of vanilla-scented whipped cream, setting a festive tone.
A decade or so later, when I decided to create my own version of the dessert, it felt only natural to seek out the advice of Gus and Mimi Rancatore, the brother-sister team behind Toscanini’s. The pair emphasized that customization is key to the cake’s universal appeal.
“You could colloquially say all God’s children eat ice cream cakes, but some want kulfi and some want cookies and cream,” Gus told me.
The three homemade components of my version—chiffon cake, fudgy chocolate, and whipped cream frosting—go with any flavor of ice cream in any style: fluffy, dense, or chunky. It’s also naturally make-ahead, since each element must be made in advance. Put them all together, and you’ve got an impressive, eminently doable project.
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The Ultimate Make-Ahead Dessert: Ice-Cream Cake
Advance preparation isn’t just a convenience perk of ice cream cake; it’s a critical part of the process, because the components need time to freeze after assembly. But that timing is flexible, since each element can be stored for days, if not weeks, before use. Here are the time ranges.
How to Make An Ice Cream Cake in 8 Easy Steps
1. GATHER THE ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT
- 9-Inch Metal Springform Pan: Effortlessly releases assembled cake
- Hand-Held Electric Mixer: Whips small volume of egg whites for chiffon as well as heavy cream for frosting
- Pastry Bag with Half-Inch Petal or Round Tip: Quickly and evenly pipes whipped cream on cake for efficient frosting
- Offset Spatula: Smooths frosting into even layer
- Parchment Paper: Lines bottom and sides of springform pan to prevent assembled cake from sticking
2. MAKE THE ICE-CREAM CAKE LAYER
Baked cake isn’t always part of ice cream cake, but there are a few good reasons to include it. First, it insulates the ice cream, significantly slowing melting after the assembled cake leaves the freezer; it also absorbs some of the ice cream’s moisture when it starts to soften, helping the cake stay intact.
Cake also provides contrast—both textural and thermal. Not only does the tender crumb complement the creamy ice cream and chewy fudge, but it feels less cold in your mouth than ice cream does (even when frozen to the same temperature) because cake absorbs less heat from your tongue.
Why Chiffon Cake Works Well
- Its fine, even crumb is full of tiny air bubbles that insulate very effectively.
- It’s oil-based and stays softer when frozen compared to cakes made with solid fat like butter.
- Its neutral vanilla profile works with any flavor of ice cream.
- It’s easy to make.
Building in Extra Tenderness
To ensure even more softness in the cake once it was frozen, I boosted the amounts of oil, egg yolks, and sugar in the batter. The extra fat increased tenderness while the sugar formed a syrup with the batter’s water that prevented the liquid from turning icy.
To make the chiffon cake, you simply whisk together cake flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, oil, egg yolks, and vanilla; whip egg whites with a little more sugar until billowy peaks form; and fold the components together. Then you pour the batter into a 9-inch springform pan and bake it in a 300-degree oven.
Ensuring a Flat Cake
The first few cakes I made domed and collapsed as they cooled, leaving the sides sunken enough that the surface required leveling. So I reduced the leavener to minimize expansion, and left the sides of the springform ungreased, which meant that the cake would grip the pan (instead of caving in on the sides) and rise and fall evenly. Voila, flat cake.
Once the chiffon is cool, I remove it from the springform so that I can use the pan to build the cake upside-down, which makes the assembled dessert as compact as possible. Then I invert it for serving, so the ice cream will ultimately be the top layer. More on that below.
3. MAKE A GOOEY, CHOCOLATEY FILLING
Good fudge sauce packs chocolate oomph and gooey chew, but it also simplifies assembly. Spread over the flattened ice cream base, the sauce settles into a smooth surface that evens out any nooks and crannies. The key ingredients: Cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate for maximum cacao content and controlled sweetness, ample sugar to prevent the sauce from freezing solid, and butter to make it rich and silky.
I start by gently heating most of the sugar with butter and milk. After it simmers for a few minutes, I make a cocoa powder “paste” in a separate bowl by whisking the cocoa with cream, a bit of salt, and a little more sugar, which ensures that the components are well blended and breaks up the powdery cocoa clumps so there’s no need to sieve the sauce. Then I add the cocoa mixture to the pot and stir it over low heat for a few minutes to dissolve the sugar, cut the heat, and stir in unsweetened bar chocolate and a splash of vanilla.
4. ASSEMBLE THE ICE-CREAM CAKE UPSIDE-DOWN
The Best Way to Assemble Upside-Down
Built upside-down in a springform pan, the triple-layer cake is easily released and inverted once frozen. Start by tempering the ice cream in the refrigerator for 20 minutes or so, where it will soften gradually and evenly. (Do not place it on the counter, since the outer portion will melt quickly and turn icy when frozen). Then apply the fudge sauce and chiffon layer.
1. Use large spoon to transfer ice cream to greased, parchment-lined, chilled pan.
2. Place sheet of plastic wrap over ice cream. and cover with kitchen towel. Press firmly with hands to flatten ice cream into even layer.
3. Remove towel and plastic. Spread fudge sauce evenly over ice cream.
4. Invert chiffon layer on top of fudge and gently press cake into fudge.
5. ADD MIX-INS TO YOUR ICE-CREAM CAKE (IF YOU WANT)
To incorporate inclusions, plan on 1 cup of the item per 11/2 quarts ice cream. Scoop a quarter of the ice cream into the prepared pan and drizzle or sprinkle with 1/3 cup of the item. Repeat, alternating layers of ice cream and inclusions, then press the ice cream into an even layer. Here are some suggestions and how to prepare them.
Cookies and candy: Chop into ¼” pieces
Cake and brownies: Cut into ½” chunks
Sauces: Chill until cold but still fluid enough to drizzle. Choose sweet sauces like chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and marshmallow crème/Fluff, the high sugar content of which will keep the sauce from turning icy when frozen.
*Avoid crisp foods like pretzels and potato chips (they’ll absorb water from the ice cream and get soggy) and dense items (regular-size M&M’s, chocolate chunks, etc.) that will be too hard to bite through when frozen.
6. FROST AND FREEZE THE ICE-CREAM CAKE
Whipped cream is ideal for frosting an ice cream cake: It complements the dessert like it does a sundae, and the air it contains makes it a great insulator—like a down jacket for the ice cream. In fact, it's so effective that it even slows melting in a cut slice of the cake.
Applying it is quick and easy with a piping bag and offset spatula. The key is to work quickly so that the whipped cream doesn't freeze before you're ready to smooth it out.
1. Use a piping tip to apply a few thin bands of whipped cream evenly around and on top of the cake (don’t worry if there are small gaps between bands).
2. Use an offset spatula to smooth whipped cream into an even layer, making sure that there aren’t any air pockets between ice cream and whipped cream.
3. Freeze cake until whipped cream at bottom edge of cake is firm, about 20 minutes (bottom edge will be last place to harden). Transfer remaining whipped cream to pastry bag. Pipe decorative border along top edge of cake. Freeze until cake is completely hardened, at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
SCIENCE: FOAM INSULATION
Tender, vanilla-scented chiffon and lush, billowy whipped cream help make this ice cream cake appealing and impressive, but their primary function is insulation. Both components are foams—liquids that trap millions of tiny air bubbles and hold them together in a solid shape—which make great insulators because the bubbles conduct heat poorly. Using chiffon, which is aerated by whipped egg whites, as the ice cream cake’s base layer, buffers the ice cream from the serving platter, and covering the assembled cake with whipped cream insulates the ice cream from all sides like a down jacket so that it stays cold and firm as the frozen ensemble is served.
7. DECORATE THE CAKE
Think of this part as an arts-and-crafts project—but with chocolate sauce, sprinkles, and gel frosting. Here are a few easy options.
How to Serve Ice-Cream Cake
Start preparing the cake for serving about 30 minutes ahead of time.
Temper the cake for 30 minutes in the refrigerator before serving, which will make it easier to slice and nicer to eat.
Microwave the remaining fudge sauce at 50 percent power for a minute or so until it’s fluid. This gets passed separately at the table.
Slice the cake with a sharp chef’s knife, wiping the blade between cuts.
Love this recipe? Try A Few Different Combinations
See “Decorate the Cake,” above, for detailed instructions on working with sprinkles, Magic Shell, and two-toned frosting.
Coffee Ice Cream Cake with Dulce de Leche and Oreos
1.5 quarts coffee ice cream
½ cup dulce de leche, chilled
½ cup Oreo cookies, chopped into ¼-inch pieces, plus 5–6 Oreos, halved
¼-⅓ cup Magic Shell
To add mix-ins: Working quickly, use large spoon to transfer one quarter of ice cream to prepared pan and sprinkle with half of Oreo crumbs and one third of dulce de leche. Repeat, alternating layers of ice cream and mix-ins.
Decorate with Magic Shell. Pipe whipped cream rosettes around top edge of cake about. Lean 1 Oreo cookie half against each rosette.
Blackberry Ripple Ice Cream Cake with Lemon Curd
1.5 quarts blackberry ripple ice cream
1 cup lemon curd, chilled
1 tube gel food coloring
To add mix-ins: Working quickly, use large spoon to transfer one quarter of ice cream to prepared pan and drizzle with ⅓ cup lemon curd. Repeat, alternating layers of ice cream and curd.
Decorate with two-toned frosting.
Pistachio Ice Cream Cake with Apricot Preserves
1.5 quarts pistachio ice cream
1 cup apricot preserves
⅔ to 1 cup sprinkles
To add mix-ins: Working quickly, use large spoon to transfer one quarter of ice cream to prepared pan and drizzle with ⅓ cup apricot preserves. Repeat, alternating layers of ice cream and preserves.
Decorate with sprinkles. Using ¼-inch round tip, pipe whipped cream beads around top edge of cake and scatter surface with more sprinkles.