Ingredient Introduction #10 – Coconut

If there’s one food that can act like a time machine, it’s the coconut.

Looking at it, or tasting it, takes you to the beach.

Smell it, and you’re in the sand, soaking up the sun and every last drop of a drink decorated with a mini umbrella.

You can find it in a can, a bag, a bottle of rum, a candy bar, a tub of sunscreen, or ice cream. But did you know it’s in the produce section?

I think convenience makes us forget that coconut can be found in its freshest form. It’s a hairy little sphere that stares at you.

Despite the word in its name, the coconut is not really a nut. It’s a drupe, which is a fruit with a hard stony covering around the seed.

While on the tree, it’s inside a green shell. The brown, Big Foot-like ball protects the bright white flesh we know so well.

You can use every part of the coconut, which is why it’s known as The Tree of Life. You can eat the flesh, drink the water, use the shell for a bowl, or a spoon, and you can make music with it.

I use coconut all the time. The shredded sweetened stuff in the baking section is great for cakes, cookies, and ice cream toppings. The canned milk in the ethnic section is great for smoothies, and curries. You can refrigerate it, and use the part that hardens (the fat) to make dairy-free whipped cream.

When I was little, I bought a whole coconut. I remember sticking a nail in it to get rid of the “juice” inside. Then I remember hitting it wit a hammer, and using a spoon to scrape off the bright white meat.

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Ever since, I’ve passed the beastly ball. Secretly, I wanted to buy one and play with it again. I finally decided to do it.

Before you buy one, shake it. If you hear lots of liquid sloshing around, that’s a plus. Don’t by a silent one. If it’s moldy, move on.

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When you get it home, push on the three eyes. One will likely have a little more give to it. That’s the one you want to break through. I used a metal skewer.

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Poke out the eye (ouch!) and then pour the liquid into a cup.

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This is not milk. It’s coconut water. It should smell fresh, and it should be clear.

Use this for a smoothie, drink it straight up (potassium & electrolytes!), or make this fantastic drink (coconut water, coconut vodka, and pineapple juice)!

To break open the coconut, you’ll need space, patience, and strength. You can put it in a bag and beat it open with a hammer, but I wouldn’t suggest that if you really want to harvest all of the flesh.

Some say that baking the whole drained coconut in a 375 or 400 degree oven for 10 minutes will make it easier to separate the flesh from the shell. I didn’t do that.

If you’re like me and choose not to bake first, grab a chef’s knife or a cleaver.

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Look at the coconut and find the line going through the center. Now ignore that. You’re going to break it open perpendicular to that center line.

To do it, use the blunt end of the knife. That’s the side that’s not sharp.

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Hold the coconut in one hand, and take the knife in the other. Then whack the coconut hard with the blunt end of the knife. Keep whacking it as you rotate the coconut. Eventually, it’ll split open.

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It’s like opening the door to the Emerald City… Except it would be the Ivory City. But, you know what I mean.

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Grab a butter knife and start prying the flesh away from the shell. It may break or splinter. You want to try for the biggest pieces possible.

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From there, use a vegetable peeler to get rid of any brown skin that’s on the back side of the flesh. Be careful, I took a chunk out of my finger doing this on one of the small, hard to grip, pieces of flesh.

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Be warned. This coconut flesh isn’t going to taste like the sugary shreds you get at the grocery store. It’s fresh, clean, and subtly fruity.

I chose to make a coconut cake, my partner in cuisine crime’s favorite.

To do this, I used the whole coconut.

I even made my own coconut milk.

This is really easy.

First, grate up the flesh. I used my food processor with the shredder circle.

Put the freshly shredded flesh into a bowl and pour in 1 1/2 cups of simmering, not boiling water. Let it sit for about 20 minutes, or until it’s room temperature.

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Then, use cheese cloth to strain it into a big measuring cup.

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Be sure to squeeze all the liquid from the shredded flesh in the cheese cloth. That’s it!

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Keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it, but realize that the fat will harden and you’ll have to blend it or let it sit to reach room temperature.

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Take the drained flesh and spread it out on a cookie sheet. Let it dry. Bam. Dried coconut!

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Here’s how I did the cake:

2 1/4 c. Cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 eggs
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp almond
1 tsp coconut extract
1 1/4 c. fresh coconut milk
3 Tbsp. fresh shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Mix butter, eggs, sugar, and extracts. Add the coconut milk.

Then mix sifted flour, baking powder and salt in another bowl. Then add dry ingredients to other mixture. Pour into buttered/floured 9 inch cake pans.

Bake at 325°F for 30 minutes.

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Let the cakes cool.

Use the coconut water (2/3 cup) to make a thin glaze by combining it with 1/4 cup powdered sugar.

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Using a fork, poke holes in the cake rounds, then drizzle on the glaze. Do it slowly to allow the glaze to soak into the cake.

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Now make whipped cream:

1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp coconut extract

Whip ingredients in a chilled bowl until thick.

Now create the cake:

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Spread a few dollops of the whipped cream onto one layer of the cake. Sprinkle on some of the shredded coconut. Put on the next layer of cake. Use the remaining whipped cream to cover it.

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Then sprinkle the rest of the shredded coconut all over the cake, top and sides!

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Finally, using a sifter, sprinkle powdered sugar all over the cake.

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This is light, fresh, and tropical. The glaze makes it moist! The whipped cream cools the feeling of tropical heat you get with each bite.

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Could is have been easier? Yes. I could’ve gotten a can of coconut milk, a small carton of coconut water, and a bag of sweet shredded coconut. Would that have given me a fresh, true treat? No!

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I have another coconut in the fridge. I’m planning to make curry with homemade coconut milk. But, this recipe for homemade coconut extract has me intrigued!

If anything, I think you owe it to yourself, and Gilligan, to play with a real coconut. If you break it open right, you can make a bra, or reenact the sounds of the Kentucky Derby.

Find another food that can do all that. I dare ya!

Tip: try to avoid “cream of coconut.” It’s a sugar bomb. Technically, coconut cream is the fat that solidifies in coconut milk (I talked about it above), but commercially sold cream of coconut is kinda like sweetened condensed milk. Check the label, you’ll almost always see sugar in the ingredient list. So, use straight up coconut milk, and sweeten as necessary. You’ll take in less sugar that way.

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