Thursday, October 3, 2013

It was his birthday: Four Layer Dessert

Four Layer Dessert--do you remember it? It's not a pie or tart or cake or ice cream. The dessert comes to us directly from the 1980's pudding craze. It has a nutty shortbread base, three layers of dairy-like goodness, and is preferably made in a Pyrex casserole dish: crust, sweet cream cheese and "whipped topping", thick pudding, and more plain "whipped topping" sprinkled with nuts. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. A do-it-all 80's mom's dream.


Hence the name: Four Layer Dessert. What else would you call it? A pudding casserole? The former might not have much pizazz, but the latter sounds gross.

Back then, we made it with Cool Whip and either pistachio or chocolate quick-set pudding. It was easy, salty, tangy, and ridiculous. It showed up at holiday gatherings--the odd ones like Labor Day which we only really celebrated as an excuse to play dominoes, eat barbeque, and swim in the pool for hours on end. It also came along to church potlucks and served alongside other 80's classics: box brownies, bar cookies, and rainbow chip cupcakes with matching rainbow chip icing. Those were the days.

When Kevin mentioned it the week before he turned (ahem) old enough to be with me 19 years, something sparked. I had been thinking of homemade pistachio pudding for years but hadn't had the energy or impulse. This was the perfect opportunity to make something simultaneously frivolous and sentimental and homemade.

Of course, this version is no longer a mother-of-infant dream. Both desserts took me the better part of an entire week, but without kids it would probably only take an hour or two--not very long in the dessert world and yet eons compared to the original recipe. But the flavor and texture of the puddings is worth the extra effort. Besides, it was his birthday.

Hope it brings back good memories. Be back soon.

Chocolate or Pistachio Four Layer Dessert

I made the dessert bottom-up, as my brain allowed, and because I needed to be able to make it over a couple days and I wanted to build it as time went on. But time-efficient persons of the world might like to know it is more logical to jump around. If you are not one of those people, skip ahead. If you are, try it this way: Make the pudding (layer 3). While it is cooling mix and bake the crust (layer 1). When the crust is cool mix the cream cheese layer. When the pudding has cooled assemble and refrigerate.

Layer 1: The Crust

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter (1 stick; 8 tablespoons) softened
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped fine

Mix until a cohesive dough forms (but don't overdo it). Press in the bottom of a 9x13 inch pan, and bake in the preheated oven until golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely.

Layer 2: The Sweet Cheese

1 pint whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup plus 1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted.
8 ounces cream cheese

Whip the cream, 1/4 cup powdered sugar, and vanilla until stiff. Think Cool Whip thickness. (Try not to whip too much, as over-whipped cream makes butter!)

In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Add the 1 cup powdered sugar and beat until smooth. Take two thirds of the whipped cream and beat into the cream cheese mixture. Refrigerate remaining cream.

Spread over the cooled crust and refrigerate.

Layer 3: The Pudding

Option A--Chocolate Pudding:

I used my recipe for Chocolate Cream Pie, with a few changes:

2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
4 egg yolks, beaten
4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons vanilla

In a medium-sized bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks. In another heat-proof bowl, combine sugar, salt, and flour. Place this on top of a pan of simmering water. Stir in the milk and cook over (not in) the pot for about 10 minutes, or until thickened. Whisk half of the hot milk mixture into the yolks. When smooth, return the yolk mixture to the remaining milk mixture, and stir until smooth. Add chocolate and cook again over simmering water until thickened. Remove from heat, let cool a little, and add the butter and vanilla.

Press some plastic wrap directly on top of the pudding and freeze for about an hour or until no longer hot. Alternatively, you may refrigerate the pudding until cooled for about 4 hours, but I haven't tried this. 

Option B--Pistachio Pudding:

I made two puddings--one with homemade pistachio paste and one with store bought--to see which one I liked best. I used Joy's recipe as a guide for both, including her paste recipe. We preferred the store bought, as it was sweeter, had a more perfectly smooth texture, and produced a vibrant green color, but I might try it next time with a my pistachio butter recipe from that cake from last fall (the recipe is in the first step), which is also sweeter and produces a greener paste.

2 cups milk
1-6.3 ounce jar pistachio paste, or equivalent
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
3-finger pinch sea salt
3 yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons butter

In a medium-sized bowl combine sugar, flour, salt, egg yolks, and a splash of the milk. Things will be quite thick. Keep at it until smooth. Set aside.

Combine the pistachio paste and remaining milk in a medium-sized saucepan. Whisk in milk. Whisk in pistachio paste. Heat the milk mixture until steamy and hot.

When ready, slowly pour in a cup or so of the hot milk mixture, whisking all the while. Add the tempered eggs back into the saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook until thickened, but do not boil.

Take the pudding off the heat and let cool a bit, then stir in the vanilla and butter. Pour pudding into a shallow dish and press plastic wrap directly on the surface. Let cool in the freezer for about an hour, or until no longer warm. Alternatively, you could cool it in the fridge for about four hours.

Layer 4: The Whipped Cream

sweetened whipped cream
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts or pistachios, to finish

Spread the remaining 3rd sweetened whipped cream on top of the pudding layer, then sprinkle the nuts evenly on top. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours. Serve cold, with black coffee or tea, if you like. Enjoy!


  1. this is so tasty!!! but fyi all, she had a head start on those 19 years - um, 7th grade!

  2. LOL - I came across this for the first time at Regent. My friend called it "Sex in a Pan" (or "Monkey Bars" when in the presence of her Mennonite aunt!)

    1. Ha, yes Bronwyn, there, indeed, a myriad of names (love the bit about her aunt!), although I had never heard of any than Four Layer Dessert until I started searching around before I made it this last time. I love that about these recipes that seem to be everywhere; the names make no sense--or too much sense!