Coconut is one of those ingredients where people are starkly divided. They either love or hate it and there doesn’t seem to be many in between. I am most definitely in the pro category. I love coconut. On its own or combined with other ingredients. Sweet or savory. There are very few situations where I do not fall over myself to get to a coconut-containing dish.
Today’s treat comes from one of the nations best food writers, Lori Longbotham. Her name is probably familiar, but you definitely know her work. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she is a prolific cookbook author and food writer, and former food editor at Gourmet magazine. She has written for Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart Living, Fine Cooking, Gourmet, Fitness, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple and many more publications.
Lori created the “Luscious” series of books: Luscious Creamy Desserts, Luscious Berry Desserts, Luscious Chocolate Desserts, and the book that contains today’s recipe, Luscious Coconut Desserts. Interestingly, Lori was never much of a sweets lover. She preferred savory foods. But she discovered the contrast of sweet and tart and instantly fell in love.
In Luscious Coconut Dessert, she talks at great length about the different forms of coconut and the benefits of each. She guides us in the art of selecting the right coconut, what to look for and where to find them. As with any foodstuff, you want to buy from a market where there is a lot of turnover. If there is dust on the shelf or box, don’t buy it at that shop. She recommends buying your coconut in Asian markets because it is a staple in those cuisines and tend to move more quickly on the shelves.
Another way to add the flavor of coconut to dishes is to use coconut milk or cream. You can substitute it in virtually any recipe that calls for regular milk. She has a list of her favorite brands, all from Thailand, which include Chaokoh, Aroy-D, Thai Kitchen and Mae Ploy. Once open, coconut milk will last about 2 days in the refrigerator, but don’t store it in its can. Transfer remaining milk to another container with a tight lid and keep chilled.
The coconut that most of us grew up baking with is sweetened. These days most recipes call for unsweetened, desiccated coconut. The challenge is to find a brand that still has a bit of moisture in it which gives it much stronger flavor. Also, the larger the pieces, the more flavor they contain.
Bread pudding is one of the great comfort foods and though served all year long, I think it is best suited to the cooler months. With the arrival of Fall, I start looking for these comforting foods and my “To Make” file swells with everything that catches my eye. Adding coconut to this wonderful dessert is just what I am craving – something sweet, complex, and tropical. I hope you enjoy this dessert as much as I do!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Store all dried coconut in airtight containers in a cool, dark place. Toasting brings out coconut’s flavor and may help extend dried coconut’s shelf life.
Kitchen Skill: How to Cook with Fresh Coconut
Place the coconut on a baking sheet and bake at 325°F for about 20 minutes. As it heats, the shell will develop “fault lines” and the meat will pull away from the shell. It may crack while baking which is a good thing. Don’t bake any longer than necessary – you don’t want to cook the meat. When it is cool enough to handle, use a hammer or heavy mallet to hit is along the fault line, breaking it open.
Using a sturdy implement such as a screwdriver, heavy table knife or oyster knife, place it between the flesh and the shell. Pry it apart, breaking the vacuum seal and the meat should pop away from the shell. Peel the brown skin with a vegetable peeler. When done, rinse and dry the coconut meat. It is now ready to shred, chop, grate or cut into large ribbons.
Creamy Coconut Bread Pudding
Lori Longbotham’s “Luscious Coconut Desserts”
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
From Luscious Coconut Desserts: This is quintessential comfort food, which is most often all about texture, and here the coconut flavor adds too the coziness. There are several textures going on that play very well together: the ultra-rich custard and the silky-soft bread are variations on smooth and creamy, and together they are a perfect foil for the crisp, crackly, toasty coconut. This is lovely just as it is, but you might serve Bananas Foster or Caramelized Pineapple on the side, or use Candied Coconut or crushed Coconut Praline as a garnish. If you’d like, steep an aromatic pandan leaf in the half-and-half with the coconut for even better, more complex flavor and aroma.
6 cups of 1/2-inch cubes of white bread (with crusts)
2 cups half-and-half
1-1/2 cups shredded unsweetened dried coconut, toasted
1 (13-1/2 or 14 oz) can unsweetened coconut milk
2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and thinly sliced
Pinch of salt
6 large eggs
1/3 cup shaved palm sugar or packed light brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-inch square glass baking dish.
Spread the bread cubes on a large heavy baking sheet and toast in the oven, stirring once, for 15 minutes, or until pale golden brown. Transfer to a plate.
Bring the half-and-half, 1 cup of the toasted coconut, the coconut milk, the lemongrass and salt to a full boil in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes.
Pour the infused half-and-half mixture through a fine mesh strainer set over a large glass measure or bowl, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Set the saucepan aside.
Whisk together the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Slowly pour in the half-and-half mixture, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook, whisking constantly, over medium-low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the custard has thickened and coats the back of a spoon; if you draw your finger across it, it should leave a track. Do not let the custard boil or scorch; if tiny bubbles appear around the edges, remove the pan from the heat for a few minutes to cool the custard, continuing to whisk. Pour the custard through a large fine-mesh strainer set over a large glass measure or bowl.
Put the toasted bread in the prepared baking dish. Pour the custard over it and push the bread down with a spoon to submerge it. Let stand for 30 minutes, or until the bread is softened.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 300°F. Have a large roasting pan ready. Put on a kettle of water to boil for a water bath.
Cover the bread and custard filled baking dish with aluminum foil and seal the edges tightly. Put the baking dish in the large roasting pan, place in the oven, and carefully pour enough boiling water into the larger pan to come halfway up the sides of the smaller baking dish. Bake for 1 hour.
Remove the foil and bake the bread pudding for 15 minutes longer, or until the top is pale golden brown but the center is still slightly jiggly. Carefully remove the baking dish from the pan and let cool slightly on a wire rack.
Spoon the warm pudding into bowls and sprinkle with the remaining toasted coconut. Serve immediately.
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