Nothing quite like grating coconut at home

January 17, 2004|By Jacques Kelly

MY BROTHER Eddie and I were discussing my sister Mimi's coming birthday. We were chatting about the merits of coconut cake, her first choice for that day's celebration, maybe preceded by sour beef and dumplings.

Strict rules governed the coconut we experienced. My grandmother Lily Rose, who made everything from her own dresses to the household soap she used on anything dirty, liked to buy a strictly whole coconut, covered in a hairy brown scalp. (Her second choice would have been grated from the Belair or Lexington markets. She would have never allowed packaged dried coconut in her kitchen.)

Born in the 1880s, she considered fresh coconut a delicacy, one of the dazzling treats of the winter months. She was fanatical about its preparation. As a child, I found observing this annual performance of domestic theater far more compelling than television or a trip to the cold playground across the street.

Her coconut usually came from the Gorsuch Avenue A&P in Waverly. On coconut day, she left the kitchen for a few minutes and walked down the cellar steps. There she approached her son's workbench (fully equipped to the standards of a Polytechnic Institute graduate) and opened the vise wide. She placed the coconut in it, then smashed it with an fearsome-looking ice pick. This act pierced the shell so she could drain out the milk, which she later used to flavor the icing and which was a prized beverage to those who liked the stuff.

She then made quick work of the coconut with an ax large enough to reduce it to manageable pieces. She took the shards upstairs and subjected them to the sharpest paring knife in her arsenal of kitchen weaponry. She discarded the exterior brown skin and then grated the white fruit until it achieved the kind of consistency she preferred -- not too small. She liked grated, not minced, coconut.

At this point, I would have needed a day off from the exhausting ordeal, but hers was just beginning. It being January, and often cold and dry, she had the right weather conditions for making her boiled white sugar icing, which will simply fail on a hot and humid day. Few confectioners can master this treacherous icing, which if done well, will stand tall and proud, like a cousin to a meringue, but sweet and delicate.

I've often said that boiled white icing was like the snow that was often underfoot outside the kitchen window. It would be piled high, with a slightly crunchy texture at the top.

The white sticky icing became the ideal bonding agent to hold the grated coconut in place on the cake's top and sides. It generally didn't take long for the cake to disappear once it had been sent to the dining-room table and placed atop a glass cake stand that arrived in our Guilford Avenue home from the Bon Ton department store in York, Pa. If there was any left over, it had to be stored in an unheated pantry off the kitchen, because, having no preservatives, the minced coconut could turn sour if unconsumed in several days. Not likely.

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