My family has a ton of Christmas traditions when it comes to shopping and gifting and decorating, but not as many when it comes to food. Some years there will be standing rib, and some years there will be deli trays. But there is one constant I’ve enjoyed every Christmas I can remember, and that is having my great-grandmother’s ice-box pudding for dessert.
And just what is ice-box pudding, you ask? Don’t bother asking Google or Pinterest, by the way. In a day and age where you can find recreations of famous restaurant dishes, countless recipes for haute cuisine appetizers, and even the gamut of down-home classics, Peg Bacon Thomas’ ice-box pudding remains delightfully immune to search-engine optimization.
Ice-box pudding is, essentially, soft ladyfingers dipped in homemade chocolate mousse and topped with whipped cream.* I suppose the appeal of it when I was a young kid—besides the chocolate mousse and whipped cream—was that, despite being called “pudding,” it was unlike anything that came out of a Jell-O pudding box.
When my grandmother’s health failed and the responsibility fell to my mom, the dessert took on a whole new sense of mystique. My parents owned a mom-and-pop grocery store and their baked goods supplier didn’t carry ladyfingers. And, living in a small town, they refused to be caught dead shopping at a competitor’s store. (And, no, when you work as much as my parents did in those days, homemade ladyfingers ain’t happening.) So the making of ice-box pudding required my aunt in Pennsylvania to buy the required amount (and a little more, just in case) of the adorable little sponge cakes and ship them to us in Ohio. The sheer effort exerted made the dessert exotic and even more delicious.
When I moved away from home and had to choose which traditions to adopt as a young adult, ice-box pudding was one of the first holiday dishes I learned how to make successfully. I even made it the year we weren’t having any guests and I was worried about eating too many because I was pregnant and the recipe uses uncooked egg whites.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s the perfect dessert for Christmas—whatever kind of Christmas you’re having. It’s a recipe that requires care: You have to add the eggs yolks to the chocolate at just the right temperature (or you get chocolate scrambled eggs instead), and I learned the hard way not to beat the egg whites too early. All that attention makes it feely worthy of a special occasion, but the presentation is not precise nor precious. (Spoon into a bowl, top with whipped cream, enjoy!) It’s delicious enough to have after standing rib, but homey and informal enough to follow cold cuts. The mousse is rich, but also light, and the lady fingers are airy so it doesn’t weigh you down or leave you sleepy.
As I say, Grammie Thomas’ ice-box pudding hasn’t made its way to the internet so far. But times change, and traditions are most delicious when shared. Enjoy!
Grammie Thomas’ Ice-Box Pudding
Yield: 12 servings
16 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (broken into pieces)
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 eggs, separated
1 cup whipping cream
24 soft ladyfingers (try Specialty Bakers brand)
1. In a double boiler (or mixing bowl placed over a pot of simmering water), dissolve the sugar into the water. Add the chocolate piece-by-piece and stir until it is all melted. Remove bowl from heat. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the chocolate mixture, stirring constantly. Stir in vanilla extract. Let cool.
2. Meanwhile, using a whisk, hand-, or stand-mixer, whip the cream into soft peaks. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. (Do not do this step ahead of time.) Fold the egg whites into the whipped cream. Carefully fold the mixture into the cooled chocolate.
3. Separate the ladyfingers. Dip each into the mousse. Layer in one direction in the bottom of a deep square dish, such as an 8x8 Pyrex. Arrange the next layer in the opposite direction. Continue until all the lady fingers are used. Pour any remaining chocolate on top. Refrigerate at least 24 hours.
4. Top with whipped cream, if desired, and serve.
Correction, Dec. 20: The article originally misstated that the mousse was dipped in the ladyfingers. (Return to the corrected sentence.)