We professional pastry chefs have at our fingertips access to something home cooks could never dream of. High quality fruit purees. They come to us frozen in 1 kilo containers, ready to be thawed and folded into our recipes with the simple removal of a plastic seal. Some are better than others but all in all they are very tasty.
Thanks to companies like Boiron, Cap Fruit, and Ravifruit, my cohorts and I can use ripe flavorful strawberry any time of year, Alfonso mango from far away India, and most importantly, difficult to process fruits like pomegranates and passion fruit without breaking a sweat. All of these and more are at our immediate disposal, and trust me, we lean on them.
One of the purees I have always enjoyed using is coconut. It is a blend of coconut cream and coconut water, and has a much cleaner flavor and higher fat content than canned coconut milk.
Naturally, when we came to the conclusion that we were going to pair coconut and pumpkin for a winter dessert, I ordered my favorite coconut puree from our purveyors for testing. I also ordered something I have never ordered before: whole coconuts. I had seen Rene, my tournant at Alinea breaking whole coconuts down for a dish every day, and got a little bee in my bonnet that I wanted to do it too, or go down trying.
Lucky for me our chef at Blackbird David Posey had been breaking down those same coconuts at Alinea long before Rene, and he was available for consulting. When he had a spare moment, he made the trek up to our pastry department, tools in hand.
He laid down a dry towel, a butcher knife, an oyster knife, and a vegetable peeler. Gripping the coconut over a bowl with his left hand and the inverted butchers knife in his right, he began tapping the shell of the coconut with the blunt side of the knife. With a series of firm but controlled whacks against the circumference of the coconut, he was able to breach the hard shell. The foggy coconut water inside began to escape the fissure, and holding the coconut over the bowl, David carefully inserted the oyster knife into the thin fault and turned it to pry the two halves apart. The coconut water collected in the bowl below was immediately transferred to a strainer lined with a coffee filter to remove any brown particulate.
To remove the meat from the shell, David folded the towel in fourths and laid it on the counter. He placed a coconut half, shell side down, on the towel. The oyster knife was inserted into the seam between the white coconut meat and the hard brown shell, and with a series of shimmys, twists, and turns, the flesh of the coconut was pried loose in one clean piece.
Obligatory jokes were made about coconut bras, and the shells were discarded in the trash.
The startlingly white coconut meat still retained a thin, soft brown skin, which was removed with a little work from a vegetable peeler. The flesh was rinsed, and cut into pieces no larger than 1 inch.
At this time the Champion Juicer was lifted to the counter. The coconut meat was pushed through the juicer a few pieces at a time. The sharp teeth inside the hub made quick work of the coconut, separating the coconut cream from the coconut fiber. The coconut fiber was spread on a sheet and placed in the dehydrator for 24 hours, resulting in dry coconut flakes similar to those used for macaroons.
The entire process left us with three products to work with; coconut water, coconut cream, and coconut flakes. It’s a labor of love I tell you. Each of the three coconut products we create by processing whole coconuts is available for purchase with no additional labor required.
During the development process, it became clear to me that it was not the flavor of the coconut, but the process itself that became the heart of the dessert it belongs to. Every part of the coconut is utilized. The dehydrated coconut fiber is ground for the flour in a steamed pumpkin cake, and toasted to infuse flavor into the ice cream that sits atop. The coconut cream helps moisten the steamed cake, and what’s left is infused with sage and poured warm over the cake and ice cream table side. A simple powder of toffee peanuts and fried sage passed through a Parmesan mill is all that adorns this coconut dessert.