I was raised on Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake—that is, a frozen cake base covered in smoothed-out ice cream, then decorated with completely extraneous, rock-hard icing. I thought it was delicious, even if it always left a trail of broken plastic utensils in its wake.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I learned people here have an entirely different conception of ice cream cake—that it’s not necessarily cake topped with a layer of ice cream, as the name would imply, but simply layers of ice cream in the shape of a cake (or maybe in the shape of a whale), separated by nubby little crunchy thingies that resembled nothing more than chocolate-flavored dirt. But like, good dirt.
Though I’ve learned to love Carvel after more than a decade in the Empire State, I still believe that something shouldn’t be called “cake” unless it’s, well, cake—a confection with a foundation of sweetened carbohydrate. Maybe that’s why Nonnie decided to call her own spin on an ice cream cake a “mocha torte,” even though this dessert contains hardly any coffee and bears zero resemblance to an actual torte. (Which, yes, is just a fancy name for cake, though tortes do have a few unique characteristics: they tend to be heavy, rich, and dense, mostly because they often swap out flour for ground nuts.)
Then again: why bother getting bogged down in definitions when we could be eating ice cream that’s been scooped onto a bed of Nilla Wafters, whimsically swirled together, sliced into cute little triangles, and topped with homemade hot fudge? There’s a time for pedantry—but not when this is on the menu.
1/2 gal vanilla ice cream, softened
1/2 gal chocolate ice cream, softened [Maybe they sell ice cream in half-gallons where you live, but I couldn’t find any; instead, I bought big 1.5 quart boxes of both flavors, and supplemented them with a pint each of chocolate and vanilla)
41 vanilla wafers
2 tablespoons instant coffee
Line two 8″ round cake pans with tinfoil. Fill one pan with ice cream balls, using a large scoop, alternating the two flavors. [You could dip your scoop into water in between each flavor to keep the colors from running together, but I couldn’t be bothered. For me, this first step used up most of the ice cream in my big boxes; that could have also been because I packed the pan a bit to make sure it was completely filled with ice cream, not realizing initially that Nonnie wanted the other layer to be the torte’s flat base.] Freeze.
Line second pan with vanilla wafers, using 14 on bottom and 10 around sides. [Maybe it’s because my cake pans were 9″ rather than 8″, but I needed way more wafers than this to cover both the bottom and the sides. I also wasn’t sure if Nonnie wanted them bottom side down or bottom side up; I went with down, so the bottom would be flatter.] Fill pan with remaining ice cream, alternating spoonfuls of both flavors to give a marbled effect. Pack down to level. Freeze.
To assemble torte: remove foil from flat layer [that is, the second layer, the one with the Nilla wafers on the bottom]; place on serving platter with top side up. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon coffee, and cover with remaining 17 wafers, letting them extend over edge. [Or however many wafers you need; it’ll be more than 17.]
Remove foil from scooped ice cream balls. Place on top of flat layer and sprinkle with remaining coffee. Return to freezer until ready to serve. Serve with chocolate sauce. [You could certainly use Hershey’s syrup or some kind of store-bought fudge, but Nonnie’s got a simple recipe for a homemade version below; it’s pretty much just a basic ganache.]
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 6 oz. package semi-sweet chocolate bits
Heat chocolate and cream together, over low heat, until chocolate melts. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Makes 1 cup and can be stored in refrigerator.
The verdict: I felt a little silly presenting the mocha torte as a dessert I’d “made,” since really, all I’d done was take ice cream and put it in a different shape. As it turns out, though, nobody cared that I’d used Breyer’s instead of house-churned vanilla bean gelato, or Nilla wafers instead of hand-crumbled artisanal crunchies. People like ice cream cake, and the mere act of “making” one is impressive, probably because people generally think of this as a treat that’s always purchased from a store—which means that in terms of actual vs. perceived effort, Nonnie’s mocha torte is one of the greatest bang-for-your buck confections out there.
The taste of the torte, of course, will depend entirely on the ingredients you use; I opted for cheap-ish ice cream because I was feeling cheap, and basic Cafe Bustelo for the same reason, though I had to settle for reduced fat Nilla wafers because the regular kind are evidently an endangered species in my neck of Brooklyn. (In the three stores I visited, the only options were those, mini Nilla wafers, and flavored ones—lemon and the gross-sounding “berry blast.”) And though the reduced fat cookies were pretty heinous right out of the box—bland and somehow immediately stale—they softened considerably once the ice cream had melted into them a bit, making them almost cakelike. (It’s the same principle you’d use to make an icebox cake, I guess.)
Though a little bit of melting does wonder for the texture of bad Nilla wafers, it of course also makes a whole lot of mess—so next time, I’d serve this in some kind of dish with a lip rather than a flat cake stand. I’d also experiment with using more espresso powder, which adds a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of everything else; maybe I’d swirl it into the ice cream itself.
Beyond those tiny tweaks, though, the mocha torte can’t really be improved upon—even if, as I maintain, it isn’t really a cake.