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From coconut oil to freshly grated coconut meat, the versatile fruit is smash hit in recipes

Coconut Poke Cake starts with a plain white cake mix, then adds plenty of coconut.
Coconut Poke Cake starts with a plain white cake mix, then adds plenty of coconut.
Published Apr. 17, 2012

I have a long history with the coconut, starting when I was a child on a Navy base in San Juan, Puerto Rico. � In our yard, we had a mile-high papaya tree, a wild and fruitful mango and several coconut palms, plus there were more in the neighborhood. We loved it when the big bombs fell to the ground; we were never adept at scaling the spindly, sloping trees to pluck the fruit as we'd seen the locals do. Armed with screwdrivers to get us started, my buddies and I would hack into the tough, fibrous husk to get to the fruit inside. Then we smashed the hard shells in the street, not caring one whit about the coconut water inside or that the shards could easily pierce our bare feet.

We'd sit on the curb, pick out the meat and chomp away. An island delight for sure, but nothing like the sweetened flakes we are accustomed to today.

Since then, I've sipped coconut water purchased from roadside stands in India, and more recently at the base of California Lighthouse in Aruba. In both places, a machete replaced our screwdrivers, and the top of the coconut, green husk and all, expertly hacked and colorful straw plunged inside. I paid $1. At my grocery store, I see coconut water marketed as miracle juice, at about $3 for 12 ounces.

In the last couple years, I've enjoyed many pina coladas on the decks of cruise ships and even made a few at home. When I eat Thai, I always order a curry laced with coconut. I've mastered the art of macaroons (I like mine dipped in chocolate) and toasting sweetened coconut flakes without burning them.

I always thought of myself as a peanut butter girl, but I am rethinking that label.

Recent travels are one reason I've been thinking about coconut more, but coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat, has also been in the news recently. Where once it was reviled, especially the variety used in theater popcorn, virgin coconut oil is now being touted as a "good" oil that can help improve brain function and relieve stress, among other benefits. Non-virgin — that is, refined — oil doesn't get the high health marks.

Erin Meagher, owner and founder of Kelapo Coconut Oil in Tampa, says plant-based fats are processed differently in the body. They are burned quicker and not stored, she says, and that's partially why coconut oil is getting another look. Vegans like it as a replacement for butter for some recipes because it's spreadable and a solid at 76 degrees. Meagher puts a tablespoon in her oatmeal every morning.

Kelapo's cold-press extra-virgin coconut oil is organic, the fruit coming from trees in Sri Lanka. Meagher started the company in 2009 and now sells the product all around the country, mostly in health food and specialty markets, and it is widely available at such stores in the Tampa Bay area. You won't find it in major grocery stores — yet. (Kelapo.com can help you find a store near you.)

I used coconut oil in the Fresh Coconut Muffin With Crunchy Streusel and Coconut Poke Cake recipes that accompany this story, both of which were delicious. The flavor of the oil is subtle, but Meagher and other users say that it makes their baked goods fluffier and pie crusts flakier. You could substitute vegetable oil, which is what the recipes originally called for.

I used freshly grated coconut in the muffins, and with just ½ cup sugar, the muffins aren't overly sweet — but they are abundantly coconut-y, thanks to the oil, coconut milk, shredded coconut and coconut extract. There's a bit more sugar in the coconut streusel that bakes to a crunchy, golden topper. For those who don't want to go to the trouble of grating a fresh coconut, try either unsweetened or sweetened flakes, each bringing something a bit different to the final product.

The Poke Cake recipe, which is simply a doctored cake mix, is a showstopper. A thick melange of coconut cream and sweetened condensed milk is poured over the just-out-of-the-oven cake, which quickly soaks in the flavor. I toasted the coconut for the top, taking the cake from snow white to brown-speckled, which looks more interesting. Plus, toasting provides more depth of flavor.

Besides the intense coconut taste, the beauty of this cake is that it can be made at least one day ahead. It gets better as it chills.

I hauled out my deep-fryer to make coconut shrimp and was thrilled with the results. So was the family. The wolverines snarfed up 2 pounds of shrimp in just minutes. I saved some for a freezer test and can report that it was a success. The directions are included with the recipe.

It went so well, I am planning on making a batch to freeze for the in-laws coming this weekend. An impressive appetizer for their first night in town, especially dipped into a mango-rum sauce.

Of course, they might just want to see me smash a coconut on the sidewalk. An entertaining technique, if just a bit unorthodox.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.