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Choosing Coconut Products for Desserts and Ethnic Dishes

Fine Cooking Issue 23
Photo: Sloan Howard
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You may be used to tasting coconut only once or twice a year in a cream pie or as a filling for a candy bar, but now that Indian, Thai, Caribbean, and Vietnamese cuisines are becoming popular, you’ll see more recipes that call for coconut in one of its many forms. Here are descriptions of those you’re most likely to find.

Shredded coconut, sweetened—The common supermarket variety, also called grated coconut, is the shredded white meat of fresh coconut that’s been sweetened for use in desserts and candies. Most brands use preservatives and sulfites to keep the coconut moist and white. Many bakers prefer long shreds over short flakes because the shreds look more dramatic on top of cakes and other confections. Toast sweetened coconut in the oven until light brown for a more pronounced flavor and sprinkle it over fruit or ice cream.

Shredded coconut, unsweetened—Sold in plastic bags in health-food stores and ethnic markets, this is simply the shredded flesh of the coconut. It’s sometimes called desiccated coconut, as it tends to be quite dry. Canned and frozen shredded coconut are moister than what’s sold in bags, but these products can be hard to find. Unsweetened shredded coconut is used in curries, stews, and soups. It’s also easily transformed into coconut milk or cream, and it can be used in desserts, either toasted or not.

Coconut milk—An important ingredient in Thai cooking, coconut milk can be used in stews, curries, vegetable dishes, and sweets, or in place of water, stock, or dairy milk. Coconut milk is not the liquid inside the coconut (which is actually a thin, cloudy liquid called coconut water that’s rarely sold). Coconut milk is extracted from grated or chopped coconut flesh by soaking it in hot water, coconut water, or dairy milk, pulverizing the mash, and straining it. When left to sit in a cool place, both homemade and good-quality canned coconut milk will separate into cream and milk. The cream is often stirred back into the milk for a smooth, uniformly rich liquid (but if you prefer a thicker, richer, more intense taste, use only the cream). Coconut milk will last indefinitely in an unopened can, but it’s as highly perishable as its dairy counterpart once the can is opened. Refrigerate the milk and use it within three days. It can also be frozen for up to two months.

Cream of coconut—Not to be confused with coconut cream and definitely not interchangeable in recipes, cream of coconut is a processed produc t made with coconut cream and lots of sugar. Most popular brands also contain emulsifiers, stabilizers, and pr e servatives to keep the cream smooth. Cream of coconut is best used in blender drinks like piña coladas and in desserts.

Coconut cream—Just as heavy cream rises to the top of unpasteurized milk, coconut cream is simply the thick, congealed coconut fat that rises to the top of homemade or good-quality canned coconut milk. Sold in cans, it’s best used in desserts or in small doses in stews, curries, and soups, as it’s extremely rich. Occasionally coconut cream is sweetened to prolong its shelf life. Check the label for ingredients, but in general even the sweetened cream is only lightly so and still can be
used in savory dishes. Canned coconut cream can be diluted with water and used in place of coconut milk.

Powdered coconut milk and cream—A convenient alternative to the highly perishable coconut milk and cream, these powders can be reconstituted to whatever strength you like. While they won’t taste as good as their fresh counterparts, they’re a fine substitute when used in more complex dishes. The powders contain no sugar.

Coconut sugar—De rived from the sap of the coconut tree, coconut sugar is used mostly in Thai cooking. It’s a dense, pastelike sugar that’s used for desserts and other confections. If you can’t find it, it can be replaced with light brown sugar.

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