The product of swaying palm trees that line white-sand beaches in warm climates around the globe, perhaps no other food conjures up such vivid images of the tropics as the coconut. Unusual in look and taste—brown, hairy, and hard-shelled on the outside, with an inside kernel portion that is rich, white, and meaty.
Coconut oil (extracted from the kernel of mature coconuts) is especially trendy today as a cooking and cosmetic ingredient due to its numerous health benefits. But this tropical fruit was also popular in nineteenth century America, for both its nutritional value and as a rich dessert ingredient. As noted by Thomas Farrington De Voe, author of 1867’s The Market Assistant, “the white kernel, although hard, woody, and tough, in its fresh state, is said to be very nutritious, and, when grated, makes excellent puddings, pies, cakes, candy, etc.”
Philadelphia’s strategic location as a busy seaport meant that the city received an abundance of coconuts from the Caribbean. Chef James Parkinson took advantage of this fact when planning the menu for his 1851 Thousand Dollar Dinner, featuring “Cocoanut* Pudding” as one of the dishes during the meal’s Pastry Course. He had a particular affinity for New World coconuts, claiming those from the West Indies were “equal to the same nut in any other tropical country.”
Early English settlers had brought their love of both puddings and pies to the New World, and by the nineteenth century they were among the most popular desserts in America. The line between them was often blurred, with the two terms used interchangeably. For example, many cream and custard pies such as almond, apple, coconut, lemon, and orange were listed in nineteenth-century cookbooks as puddings, but they were baked in a pie pan lined with a pastry crust or at least rimmed with a strip of pastry.
Recipes for Cocoanut Pudding can be found in several different nineteenth century cookbooks, including those from leading authors of the era such as Eliza Leslie, Maria Parloa and Sarah Annie Frost. I ended up combining two from Maria Parloa’s The Appledore Cook Book (1880). Parloa had honed her cooking skills by working as a cook in private homes and as a pastry chef at a number of summer resorts in New Hampshire in the late 1800s. She established a cooking school on Tremont Street in Boston and was so popular that she could charge impressive fees for her services. Asked to serve as principal at the Boston Cooking School, Parloa turned down the offer as she was involved in other endeavors and commanded a much larger salary than the school could pay her. However, she was hired to train a group of teachers prior to the school’s opening, and later gave public lecture-demonstrations on weekends.
Here are the recipes from The Appledore Cookbook:
One quart of milk, one teaspoonful of butter, the yolks and the whites of three eggs, one cup of sugar, one cocoanut and milk of cocoanut. Bore a hole in the cocoanut and drain out the milk; then crack the nut and take from the shell; pare off the brown skin and grate. Butter a pudding-dish and lay the cocoanut in it, then pour over it the custard. (Scald the milk before making the custard.) Bake in a moderate oven until it is firm in the centre, which you can tell by cutting with the handle of a teaspoon. Frost immediately upon taking from the oven, with the whites"of two eggs and one cup of sugar beaten to a stiff froth.
Cocoanut Pudding, No. 2.
Six eggs, one cup of sugar, one quart of milk5«one cocoanut, milk of cocoanut. Prepare the cocoanut as for No. 1. Beat the eggs and sugar to a froth, stir in the milk and then the cocoanut; butter a pudding-dish, turn in the mixture, and bake twenty or thirty minutes. When the fresh cocoanut is not in the market, use one cup of the desiccated cocoanut and the juice of one fresh lemon.
Coconut Pudding Pie
- 1 prebaked piecrust
- 1 fresh coconut
- 2 cups milk
- 5 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon rosewater or brandy
- 6 egg whites
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- Bore a hole in the three eyes of the coconut (I used a screwdriver) and drain out the milk, straining it through a fine sieve. Reserve in a separate bowl. Place the coconut on a lined baking sheet in the lower third rack of a 400F oven for about a half hour. After removing coconut, dial oven back to 350F. When the coconut has cooled, crack it open using a hammer and pry off the outer shell. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the thinner light brown skin. Grate the white, meaty portion using a food processor or box grater. Reserve.
- Beat the eggs and sugar to a froth, then stir in the milk, coconut, rosewater and reserved coconut milk. Carefully pour into prebaked piecrust. Cover edges of piecrust with small pieces of aluminum foil to prevent it from burning. Bake for 45-55 minutes, checking periodically. Pie is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Frosting – Maria Parloa suggested frosting the pudding with the whites of two eggs and one cup of sugar beaten to a stiff froth. This would make a very nice icing, but many folks today are concerned about serving uncooked eggs. So, an alternative would be to create a meringue – beat the six egg whites and six tablespoons of sugar until fluffy. Spread on the top of the pie and return to the oven until lightly browned.
This pie is a pretty, unique-tasting dessert - the meringue topping gives it quite an elegant look and texture contrast with the pudding. It takes a little time and effort to prepare the coconut but is actually is quite fun. The feedback I received from one of my taste testers was that it was "really very good."
* “Cocoanut” or “cocoa-nut” were common spellings through the early twentieth century, but eventually the “a” was dropped, possibly to avoid confusion with the word “cocoa.”
Sources: American Dishes at the Centennial by James Parkinson; The Oxford Encyclopedia to American Food and Drink by Andrew F. Smith; Baking in America by Greg Patent; The Appledore Cook Book by Maria Parloa; Mrs Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School by Becky Libourel Diamond