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Recipes and Stories

3 December 2015: Ambrosia

Classic Ambrosia the way Mrs. Hill (and God) meant it to be.

799. Ambrosia—Is made by placing upon a glass stand or other deep vessel, alternate layers of grated cocoanut, oranges peeled and sliced round, and a pineapple sliced thin. Begin with the oranges, and use cocoanut last, spreading between each layer sifted loaf sugar. Sweeten the cocoanut milk, and pour over.

—Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.

Ambrosia was the legendary food of the gods, and it’s an especially appropriate epithet for this luscious fruit salad. When well made, it is indeed heavenly. A traditional Christmas dish all over the South at least since the days of Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife (1847), its essential ingredients are oranges and freshly grated coconut, but depending on where you are in the South, other citrus fruits and often pineapple are added to the bowl.

Today, in the interest of novelty (at least, that’s all I can figure), ambrosia has been subjected to all sorts of indignities, including packaged sweetened coconut, canned pineapple, maraschino cherries, marshmallows, and—God help us—gelatin and nondairy topping. The fresh, clean flavor and spirited finesse that made real ambrosia’s name so appropriate gets literally buried alive.

What follows is Annabella Hill’s classic recipe. The critical ingredient is fresh coconut juice, so when selecting a coconut for this recipe, hold it near your ear and shake it: it should slosh happily with plenty of juice.

Serves 6 to 8

1 small, fresh coconut with juice
1 fresh, ripe pineapple
6 large, sweet oranges, such as navel or Honeybell
Granulated sugar

1. Fit a fine-meshed wire strainer over a bowl. Using a skewer, ice pick, or Philips-head screwdriver, punch out the stem scars that make the little monkey face on one side of the coconut. Invert the coconut over the strainer and drain all the juice into the bowl. It should smell of fresh coconut: if it smells musty, the coconut is old; discard the whole thing. Lay the nut sideways on an unbreakable surface (the patio, a bare concrete floor, the front walk). Tap it firmly with a hammer around the middle, rotating the nut, until it cracks and splits. Turn each half rounded end up, and tap until the shell breaks apart. Pry the white flesh from the shell, peel off its brown hull, and shred the nutmeat with a fine grater.

2. Cut off the stem and sprout ends of the pineapple, and holding it over a bowl to catch the juices, peel it. Cut out the core and slice the pineapple in 1/4-inch thick pieces. The easiest way to do this is to cut the pineapple flesh from the core in vertical wedge-shaped sections. You can also use a special gadget that is designed for the purpose (it looks like a corkscrew on steroids), or if you’re lucky, some grocers will actually peel and core pineapples for you. Cut the sliced pineapple into bite-sized chunks and add it to the bowl containing its juice.

3. To peel the oranges: cut off the stem and blossom ends by cutting all the way through to the flesh of the orange. Holding the fruit over a bowl to catch the juices, peel them with a paring knife, just barely cutting through the outer membranes of each section. Cut the oranges crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices, remove the seeds, and put them in the bowl with their juice.

4. Cover the bottom of a glass serving bowl with a layer of oranges, sprinkle with a handful of the coconut, and sugar to taste. Cover with a layer of pineapple and sprinkle with another handful of coconut and sugar as needed. Repeat with the oranges, coconut, and pineapple until all the fruit is in the dish, finishing with a layer of oranges. Hold back enough coconut for one thick finishing layer. Sweeten the reserved coconut juice to taste and pour it over the ambrosia before sprinkling the last layer of coconut over the top. Let it stand for an hour or so before serving.

5. Combine the reserved pineapple and orange juice and drink it yourself—cook’s treat.

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