As a pastry chef living on the island of Hawaii, I have a proprietary fondness for rich, sweet coconut. I’m still charmed by the Beware of Falling Coconuts signs that dot the beaches here, and my own backyard plays host to a lovely, fruitbearing coconut tree. But when it comes to baking with this favorite flavor of mine, I usually don’t bother with a fresh coconut. And I’m not alone. Even in Hawaii, most cooks shy away from using fresh. Why? Though fresh coconut is delicious, it’s literally a hard nut to crack. I’ve seen experienced huskers free a kernel in seconds, but amateurs like me can spend thirty minutes hacking away with a hammer only to end up staring hopelessly at a mess of dirty, fiber-covered, virtually unusable meat.
For those who want to try their hand at it, be my guest. For the rest of us who would rather cook with coconut than wrestle with it, there are many excellent coconut products available—dried coconut, coconut milk, even coconut extract—that provide authentic flavor without need of a hammer, a screwdriver, persistence, and practice.
Try health-food stores for shredded coconut
Dried (also called desiccated) coconut is the most familiar form of packaged coconut. You can find dried coconut in the supermarket, but you don’t often find a variety of sizes, and it’s usually sweetened. I tend to avoid sweetened coconut, mainly because it tastes more of sugar than of coconut, but also because I find it has a slightly chemical taste (most brands use preservatives and sulfites to keep the coconut moist and white). Aside from the difference in flavor, sweetened coconut has a higher moisture content so it can’t always be substituted when a recipe calls for unsweetened. It will work in a pinch as a garnish, but don’t try to substitute sweetened coconut in the macaroon recipe; you’ll never get the proper result: a crisp, dry exterior that contrasts deliciously with the moist, intensely flavored interior.
I usually head to the health-food store when I need desiccated coconut. That’s where you’ll find those wonderful large flakes—the size that often turns up in granola. This is what to buy when you want to make a statement. I use the wide flakes in my favorite biscotti, where they stand out noticeably, and to festoon the coconut buttercream icing on my chocolate layer cake. I use the small grated coconut for my macaroons and to give brownie and cookie recipes an exotic kick and crunch.
Because of its high fat content, even desiccated coconut can get rancid if stored too long. Be sure to smell—better yet, taste—the coconut before you buy it. Store it in a cool, dry place (it will last about a month, or about a year in the freezer in an airtight container) and taste it again before you use it.
Toast shredded coconut to round out its flavor. Raw and desiccated coconut take on a beautiful golden color and a deeper flavor when gently toasted. To toast coconut, spread it evenly on a baking sheet and put it in a 350°F oven. Watch it carefully and stir once or twice for even color. Pull it out just as the coconut begins to turn a light brown.
Coconut milk provides rich flavor without the telltale texture
A big part of coconut’s appeal for me is its chewy texture. But I know people who, while they like the flavor of coconut, object to how it feels in their mouth. For them, smooth, creamy coconut desserts are the answer. I use coconut milk to flavor custards, ice cream, and sorbet. I use it in icings and to flavor pastry cream.
Coconut milk is not the liquid found within the coconut: it’s made from combining coconut meat with hot water (or dairy milk or cream) and straining and squeezing out as much liquid as possible. You can make your own, but canned coconut milk is convenient and is found in most supermarkets, as well as in Asian or Latin American groceries. The Thai products are my favorite: smooth and homogenous. Mendoca’s coconut milk from Hawaii is the most like homemade, slightly coarse and separated.
Canned coconut milk will last indefinitely unopened, but once opened is highly susceptible to spoilage. Refrigerate opened coconut milk and freeze what you don’t use in a day or two; it will last two months in the freezer. Coconut milk may be substituted in part for liquids in baking, but be aware that it can curdle without a thickener, and it will turn a very unappealing shade of gray if cooked in a cast-iron pot.
Don’t confuse coconut cream with cream of coconut. Coconut milk is high in saturated fat and can separate, forming a thick layer of cream on top. This cream is often stirred back into the can for a smooth, uniformly rich liquid. But if you want a more intense flavor, skim off and use only the cream. The term coconut cream can be confusing; it’s also legitimately a thicker liquid made from combining coconut meat with less liquid, and this product can be used when a recipe calls for coconut cream. Do not, however, confuse coconut cream with a product called cream of coconut (Coco Lopez is one popular brand). Cream of coconut is a processed product made with coconut cream and lots of sugar. It isn’t interchangeable with coconut milk or coconut cream and is best used for blender drinks.
Other ways to add coconut flavor include syrups and extracts. Coconut syrup, often used by bartenders and available in liquor stores, is excellent in place of simple syrup to moisten sponge cake layers. I like to add a bit to homemade caramel sauce, which I then spoon over macadamia nut ice cream.
Even coconut extract has a place in layering flavors in pastry work. It’s delicious in French buttercreams or when used in place of vanilla extract in white or yellow cake layers. A friend of mine finishes limeade with a few drops of coconut extract for an instant taste of Tahiti. Just remember to use it sparingly: it can leave a chemical aftertaste if used too heavily.
Coconut pairs well with more than just tropical flavors
Tropical flavors are an obvious match for coconut: mangos, papayas, and strawberries brighten rich coconut custards, while coconut ice cream or sorbet is perfect with grilled pineapples or banana fritters. As any fan of Mounds candy bars will tell you, coconut and chocolate, especially bittersweet chocolate, are perfect together. Coconut also responds to the warmth of ginger and cardamom and the toasty notes of walnuts, macadamias, and almonds.
And even when I’ve spent all day making coconut desserts, I’ll still crave a spicy Thai curry, its heat tempered with coconut milk, or some crisp, coconut-crusted fried shrimp. But those recipes belong in another story about coconut—the savory one—and that’s a good story, too.