Chapel Hill cookbook author Nancie McDermott, author of “Southern Cakes” and “Southern Pies,” explains how and why coconut became the star ingredient at Southern holidays. And she shares this recipe for Ambrosia and Coconut Cake. Most recipes suggest holding the prepared ambrosia, covered and chilled, for at least two hours before serving. You could serve it immediately, or hold it for several hours. It will be at its best the day it is made.
About 3 pounds oranges, such as navel oranges; 6 to 8 large oranges
About 3/4 cup granulated sugar
About 2 cups finely grated fresh coconut or frozen grated coconut, thawed or shredded sweetened coconut (if using sweetened coconut, use about half the sugar)
Peel the oranges, using a sharp knife. Slice off the top and bottom of each orange, exposing the juicy core. Place oranges on cutting board and slice down the sides, paring away all the white pith and exposing the juicy orange pulp. Work in sections, paring at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, working evenly around the fruit. Then pare away the sections at 2, 5, 7, and 10 o’clock. Finally, trim any remaining strips of white pith. Turn the fruit bottom side up and remove any remaining white pith around the bottom half. Reserve the juice, and squeeze juice from any portions of peel which have considerable pulp attached.
Slice the peeled oranges crosswise into thin rounds, turning the orange as you work to avoid pressing out juice. Use a very sharp, serrated knife if possible. Remove any seeds as you work, along with any pith from the center of the fruit. OR divide the orange into sections. Hold the orange in one hand, and use a sharp knife to slice the pulp away from the thin soft casing holding the juicy fruit. Push gently to free the juicy section of pulp and place it in the bowl. Work around the fruit until all the juicy fruit is in the bowl. Squeeze the remaining casing to capture its juice. Continue with all the oranges.
To prepare the ambrosia, choose a serving bowl with a 1-quart capacity (four cups). Cut glass bowls are the traditional favorite, and any glass bowl shows off the golden hue of the dish wonderfully. Place a layer of orange slices or orange sections in the bottom of the bowl, covering it completely. Sprinkle generously with a portion of the coconut, and then scatter 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar over the coconut. Continue layering the oranges, coconut, and sugar, making two more layers and ending with coconut on top. Drizzle reserved orange juice over the top of the fruit; it should disappear into the bowl. It should not be too juicy.
Cover and chill for 2 hours, or until close to serving time. If possible, remove from the refrigerator 15 to 20 minutes to reduce the chill.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings