Tuesday, March 1, 2011

ingredient: COCONUT

The coconut is such a cheerful fruit that you’d never guess it was named after the Boogie Man. The name came about when early Spanish explorers came to the New World. They saw this fruit with its coarse, hairy shell and three face-like holes and they called it “Coco” or “Cuco” after a mythical monster that eats children who misbehave. In a happy turn of events for bad kids everywhere, we now eat the Coco. And he's delicious.

You've probably noticed coconuts growing on large palm trees everywhere from Sri Lanka to New Zealand. They're popular because they’re pretty. Seriously, coconut trees have been grown since Ancient times for decorative purposes. But decoration is just one of the many ways to use coconut trees. Coconut leaves can be woven into everything from bowls to roofs. The shells are made into tools and buttons. How great would it be to eat coconut from a coconut bowl while wearing your coconut button shirt and sitting on your coconut rug under your coconut roof as someone burns coconut shells to repel the mosquitoes? Talk about a theme party!

Gastronomically speaking, the coconut has a similarly impressive range of products to offer. Coconut meat has a subtle, nutty flavor, and it’s often grated into flakes which are used in cooking. When the grated meat is mixed with hot water it makes coconut milk, an extremely rich and fatty liquid that makes almost anything taste awesome. My favorite use for coconut milk is in curries, where it adds a silky texture and a cool foil to spices. Coconut oil is also pressed from the meat, and in many countries it surpasses olive oil as the cooking oil of choice.

If you ever manage to crack open a fresh young coconut yourself (good luck) you’d find a pool of opaque water sitting in its cavity. That’s coconut water, the liquid recently made popular by brands like VitaCoco, Zico, and Madonna. Coconut water is actually pretty cool: it’s completely sterile until you mess with it and because of its electrolyte balance it’s occasionally used as an intravenous hydrating fluid in places where they don’t have real medical saline. Along with its low calorie content and high levels of potassium and other vitamins, coconut water is actually a healthy drink. In fact I genuinely like the taste of coconut water, especially when I can’t be sitting on a beach, drinking a Miami Vice (that’s half daiquiri, half pina colada), listening to the ocean roar and the palm trees wave. Oh well. What's Spanish for poser?

A's Cook's Coconut Cake

Here’s my dirty secret: I stole the recipe for this cake. It’s one of the only things I’ve ever stolen- the other being an almost complete set of dishes from my college dining hall-- and I don’t regret it one bit.

I did the deed when I was about ten. One of my friends growing up lived in a seemingly magical house that had its own swimming pool, two-tiered gardens, darling English nanny, and cook. That cook introduced me to avocados. I remember it vividly. We were having lunch and for an appetizer I was presented with an entire emerald green avocado half drizzled with mustard vinaigrette. It was mind-blowing. I was immediately mad at my family for never having introduced me to this wonder food before. It turns out they had rarely ever eaten it. The world used to be a much scarier place.

My friend’s cook also made a wonderful coconut cake. I asked my friend for the recipe. She said no. That’s right, she straight up refused me. I was baffled. This girl had her own swimming pool and she wouldn’t give me a recipe for one damn cake? If her cook didn’t also make an amazing chili and serve us steaming cups of freshly-melted-imported-chocolate-hot chocolate well, our friendship might not have survived.

Then one day I went into the kitchen and there was a book of recipes sitting there, open on the counter, just asking to be looked at. I swear.

So yes, I did it. I quickly found the coconut cake recipe and furtively copied it onto a piece of paper. And I’m glad. I'm glad because this cake is incredibly easy, I mean almost unbelievably easy, to make. Like many other South American desserts, its main ingredient (other than coconut) is condensed milk. There’s no flour, just eggs, baking soda and coconut flakes. The result is a chewy, sweet cake with a strong coconut flavor.

[the original document. Excuse my hand-writing.]

This cake recently provided me with the opportunity for an interesting taste test. To be more accurate, an accidental purchase of unsweetened coconut flakes from Whole Foods provided me with the opportunity for a taste test. Most recipes call for unsweetened coconut flakes, and the recipe I copied down didn’t specify. I think the reasoning for using unsweetened flakes is similar to calling for unsalted butter- it’s better to season sweets yourself. However I didn't know about sweetened versus unsweetened when I was ten, and honestly I like the sweetened coconut flakes you can buy in the supermarket, even if they’re dismissed by chefs. So I made this cake twice. The first with unsweetened flakes, the second with sweetened.

The results were undeniably in favor of the sweetened flakes. The problem wasn’t so much that the cake made from the unsweetened flakes wasn’t sugary enough, it was that those flakes were too small and way, way too dry. Whatever it is that they use to coat the sweetened coconut flakes (high fructose corn syrup? I won’t ask) lends the flakes a moistness that stays even as they bake. The sweetened flakes didn’t get overly toasted or gritty as the unsweetened ones did. So hurray to cheap ingredients winning the day.


3 large eggs
1 tsp baking powder
14 ounces condensed milk
7 ounces (2 2/3 cups) sweetened coconut flakes

directions :

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8 x8 x 2 baking pan

Put eggs, condensed milk, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor.

Pulse until combined, 5 pulses. Add 2 cups of coconut flakes, pulse until flakes are small but not smooth, about 5 seconds. Pour batter into pan and top with remaining coconut.

Bake for 35 minutes or until top is golden and tester comes out clean.

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