I have always been fascinated with coconuts. When I was a kid, the first thing I did when I accompanied my mom to the grocery store was run to the produce section and start shaking them. I just couldn’t get over how they “sloshed” when shook, and it piqued my curiosity to find out what was inside.
However, my mother did not have the same fascination with these hard, hairy fruits. I remember heartfelt and strident begging sessions asking her to purchase one, but she never gave in. “What in the world do you want one of those for?” she would always ask. But all my reasons, excuses and yearnings for my very own coconut never worked with her.
And then one year a favorite aunt sent me a dollar for my birthday, and the first thing I did was purchase a coconut; a culinary dream come true.
My excitement was immeasurable, and when I plunked my prize on the kitchen table, all four of my siblings took a turn shaking it to hear the milk splash around inside. My brother produced a hammer, and about the time I was going to take a mighty whack at the hard brown shell (while my brother held it tightly to the table) my mother walked in and declared her standard statement “Wait until your father gets home.”
When he did walk in the door later on that afternoon, we surrounded him, begging him to crack open the coconut. His response was a big smile, and he produced a long nail and a small maul, which he used to poke a hole in one of the “eyes” of the shell. We watched in hushed silence as he poured the cloudy liquid from the hole into a glass. Then we all took a small sip, marveling at its sweetness.
Next he whacked it open with a hammer, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed at the insides. While the meat tasted sweet and rich, I just couldn’t get how to extract it from the hairy shell and bitter brown rind.
A few years later we took a trip to Florida, and there my coconut fascination was rejuvenated. They were everywhere! In yards, on the street and I even saw one floating in a pool. The palm trees they grew on were also intriguing, and I would peer up into the swaying fronds at the immature green fruits with wonder.
That experience made me want to learn more about this tropical treat. Just what IS a coconut? Come to find out botanists are not sure whether the coconut is a fruit, nut or a seed. Most consider it a “drupe” which is a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing a seed.
Coconuts, and all drupes, (which also include plums, peaches, olives, almonds and mangoes, to name a few) have three layers: an exocarp (outer layer); the mesocarp (fleshy middle layer) and the endocarp (hard, woody layer that surrounds the seed.) The definition for a coconut can be all three, and so it can be considered either a fruit, a nut or a seed.
Whatever it is, we did get a chance to see a very talented coconut cracker when we were on our Florida vacation. It was at a restaurant, and while we were dining, I saw a man walk by with a coconut in one hand and a big meat cleaver in the other. I couldn’t help myself. “What are you going to do with that coconut?” I blurted out. He looked us over and then graciously invited my family back into the kitchen, where he demonstrated his coconut cracking expertise by whacking the brown nut expertly in the middle of the shell over a bowl, where the sweet milk poured out. Then he took a small paring knife and with quick, skilled movements separated the flesh from the brown bitter rind. We couldn’t believe how good it tasted.
After our meal he gave us all a sample of the most delicious coconut custard pie I have ever tasted. It was rich, moist and melt-in-your-mouth good. Of course, being a kid, I never thought to ask him for the recipe, but some time back I got to thinking about that expert coconut cracker and his delicious pie. I found a similar recipe, and have included it for this week.
And then, a couple of days ago, when the high was forecast to be a mere 1 degree, my thoughts once again turned to that long ago vacation. Not surprisingly, it was when I spotted a pile of coconuts in the produce section of the grocery store. Beyond my own volition, I picked one up, shaking it around my ear, hearing that familiar sloshing. I set it in my cart with a smile, and now it’s on my kitchen window sill, where it reminds me of tropical breezes, swaying palm trees and friendly restaurateurs, who take the time to teach Yankee kids a thing or two about the south. That brown hairy fruit-seed-nut still fascinates me.
Now pass the meat cleaver.
Coconut Custard Pie
4 eggs, well beaten
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup Bisquick
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 cup flaked coconut
Mix first 3 ingredients together, then add the rest. Mix well and pour into greased 9-inch glass pie plate. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. This pie makes its own crust with the custard filling in center and browned coconut on top. To test for doneness, place the point of knife in center. If knife comes out clean, it’s done. Chill before serving.