I grew up on a tropical island somewhere in between paradise and magical. Forget the sun, sea and sand; it was nature’s bounty that got my heart a-thump-thump even at a young age. In the garden of my childhood home stood nearly 20 varieties of fruit trees with exotic names the likes of rambutan (nephelium lappaceum) ciku (manilkara zapota), and nona (annona squamosa).
But one stood above the others, literally — the venerated coconut palm. Known as the tree of life, the plant is valued for its absolute utility. Every part is used… its trunk carved up into durable furniture and utensils; its fronds made into thatch for huts and woven into baskets. And then there is the fruit.
Not so much a nut as it is a drupe (a fruit with a hard stone), the coconut itself is exceedingly versatile. First there’s the juice, a clear, refreshing liquid stored in the centre of young fruits. In many cultures, the nutrient-packed, antioxidant-rich coconut water is viewed as a panacea for everything from gastrointestinal ailments to fevers and dehydration. In this case, granny’s tale may just be valid. During World War Two, many doctors turned to coconut water as a substitute for intra-venous solutions when they were low on supplies.
As the fruit matures, it’s the flesh that is most prized, where it is scraped out or grated from the shell and squeezed to produce coconut milk. This base ingredient flavours and thickens curries, soups, rice dishes as well as marinades in Asian, Central American and island cuisines. Coconut flesh is also desiccated and used in chutneys, custards, cakes, cookies and a cavalcade of other dishes.
Those who live in the tropics have ready access to fresh coconut in all its forms. But the increased use of the ingredient in international cuisines means one no longer needs to track to specialty stores to procure the wondrous fruit. Coconut milk in cans and bags of dried coconut are now de rigeur in most decent supermarkets.
I love baking with coconut. As it browns in the oven, the house is filled with an aroma that’s nutty, woody and sweet. Coconuts can add a whimsical twist to meringue (behold the birth of the splendidly moist macaroon) or quite a bit of elegance when toasted golden and scattered over a rich ganache (anyone craving German chocolate cake?)
For a knockout dessert with minimal effort, try this Six-Layer Bar, a version of the American southern treat Hello Dollies. We call them Magic Bars in my household. I’m not sure exactly why. If I had to venture a guess, it got its name because of how the condensed milk caramelises the coconut and chocolate and cookie base into one chewy, irresistible nugget. Or because of how they vanish when presented to a crowd. Now you see ‘em, now you don’t — just like magic.