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On Cooking Southern: Coconuts

Coconut Chess Pie
Coconut Chess Pie

Cracking Into Coconut Cake and Pie

By Laurie Triplette
Tacky:  Not gracious. Certainly not classy. Somewhat cheap or trashy. Think Sara Lee Coconut Cake served on its paper plate after a formal Christmas Dinner. Or serving store-bought eggnog at the big party … or box wine, any time.
Coconuts played center stage at my family’s dessert table twice a year: At Christmas and at Easter. Coconut cake was the centerpiece dessert, to be accompanied by egg nog or boiled custard (at least 6,000 calories per serving in total).  We also made up assorted chocolate candies containing coconut, along with very sweet pies and plain cakes containing fruits, nuts and coconut. Shortly after Thanksgiving, we children would accompany Mom to the grocery store to select the heaviest coconut available (for reasons given below. Once home again, we carefully drained and saved the coconut milk, cracked the coconuts, and removed the meat from the shell. In looking back, I marvel at how my mother turned this otherwise tedious kitchen chore into a game for us children.
Tips for Getting at that Coconut
Select a heavy nut that sloshes when shaken. This indicates full ripeness and ample milk. Avoid coconuts with leaky or moldy eyes, or eyes that feel soft when pressed. To drain the milk, pierce the two coconut eyes with an ice pick (and hammer). Work the pick in the holes until large enough to drain out when upended over a large measuring cup.  Prep the drained nut by tapping all over with a hammer to loosen the meat. When the sound changes from a tap to a thud, the coconut has begun to separate. Place the coconut on a pan in a preheated oven set to 325-350˚F for about 10 minutes. The coconut should crack. Even if not cracked, remove from oven and tap again with hammer until shell actually breaks. Pick out or shave out the coconut meat.
To flake fresh coconut once removed from shell, freeze it overnight. Remove from freezer and chop a bit at a time in a food processor. Remove flaked coconut from processor and repeat until done. (NOTE: Grate it by hand, if preferred.) Store unused amount in freezer up to 10 months if tightly wrapped. If it smells musty, throw it away.
Chess pie is a favorite Southern sweet, composed of eggs, sugar, milk or buttermilk and occasionally flavored with lemon, chocolate or other delicate flavorings. This coconut version satisfies one’s craving for creamy custardy pie AND for holiday coconut sweets.
3 large eggs
1-1/2 c white granulated sugar
8 oz evaporated milk
3 oz fresh grated coconut (bagged is okay in a pinch)
1/3 c melted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
9-inch deep-dish pie crust
Preheat oven to 350˚F.  Beat eggs and sugar together with mixer about 2 minutes on medium speed until mixture thickens slightly. Beat in milk, butter and vanilla extract until blended. Mix in coconut. Mixture will be thin. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake 45-55 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Check on pie at 45 minutes, cover with loosely tented foil if additional baking time is required to prevent over-browning. Center will be jiggly, but edges firm when ready to remove to rack to cool. Once cooled, refrigerate until serving time.
The best traditional coconut cake is made with the old 1-2-3-4 cake recipe (nuts omitted). Your family probably won’t notice the difference, however, if you take a short cut by preparing a cake mix. Simply substitute coconut milk instead of the water, milk or oil ingredient called for in the white or yellow cake mix directions.
Day 1
1 or 2 fresh coconuts (depending on size)
16 oz sour cream
2 c white granulated sugar
4 T heavy cream
18 oz grated or flaked fresh coconut
Additional grated coconut
Prepare a fresh coconut, reserving the milk, grating or flaking the coconut meat. Combine the sour cream, sugar, cream, and 18 oz of coconut, reserving 1/2 c. Refrigerate to blend.
Day 2
Preheat oven to 300˚F. Spread out 1/2 c fresh grated coconut on lined cookie sheet. Lightly brown the coconut and set it aside.
Day 3
1-2-3-4 Cake
1 c (2 sticks) butter
2 c white granulated sugar
4 eggs
3 c self-rising flour, pre-sifted
1 c reserved coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Cream butter in large bowl with mixer,. Add sugar and continue mixing 6-8 minutes until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time. Continue mixing, adding flour and milk alternately, ending up with flour last. Add in vanilla and almond extract just to blend. Use ladle to fill the cake pans evenly. Spread out batter level in each pan. Drop pans on counter to remove air bubbles. Repeat until few (or zero) air bubbles appear on batter surface. Bake on center rack of oven for about 25-30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Remove pans to racks to cool. If tops of layers are very rounded, even them up by shaving off mounded portion with sharp knife.  Otherwise, begin stacking the cake by inverting first layer onto cake plate. Poke holes evenly about 1-inch apart across top with a wooden skewer (the type used for shish kabob). Spread with 1/3 of refrigerated mixture. Repeat with second layer and again with third (top) layer. Insert two wooden skewers cut to size all the way through all three layers to prevent sliding.
Seven Minute Icing
3 egg whites
3/4 c white granulated sugar
3/4 c light corn syrup
1 T water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients except vanilla in double boiler bowl placed over boiling water. Make sure the top of the water does not touch the bottom of the double boiler bowl, or the mixture will turn grainy. Cook about 7 minutes, beating continuously with hand mixer.  Icing mixture will increase in volume and will turn glossy. Remove from heat and beat in vanilla. Frost sides and top of cake. Icing will be very sticky, and must be spread before it sets up. Evenly sprinkle fresh grated coconut all over cake sides and top, finishing with a light dusting of the toasted coconut across the top. Refrigerate cake until serving.

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