Coconut pie was one of my maternal grandfather’s signature desserts. He would normally prepare them on a Saturday afternoon so they would be ready for Sunday dinner.
I loved sitting at the red Formica table in the kitchen as Papa laid out all his ingredients. I watched him carefully measure out his sugar, cornstarch and coconut. Some of our best times together involved me observing him creating these culinary masterpieces.
Once the pies were in the oven, he always cleaned his pots and utensils. Before you knew it, those baked beauties with toasted shreds of coconut were ready.
My grandparents lived in a house without central heating or air conditioner. So these pies would go from the oven to the table in the enclosed porch to cool. He always made at least two, and sometimes more. The sweetness of those pies would perfume the air.
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For Southerners, like my family in Virginia, coconut as an ingredient marked a special occasion. It was associated with the holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or for us, it was often served as a dessert on Sunday.
Debbie Moose, author of “Southern Holidays,” part of the Savor the South series from UNC Press, explains that before the days of the railroad, coconut was only available in port cities such as Wilmington, Richmond, Va., and Charleston, S.C. “Citrus fruit and coconut was very expensive and only available once a year,” she says. So coconut cakes and pies were a big treat.
It takes a little effort but it’s worth it to encourage delicious family traditions.
Big Jimmy's Coconut Pie
Papa liked his desserts sweet. This coconut pie is no exception. Enough said. I prefer using 1/2 cup sugar even though my Papa used 1 cup of sugar. I think it’s sweet enough with less sugar. Add a half teaspoon of vanilla extract to add a little bit more richness. Papa used Jiffy piecrust mix to make his piecrust. From “Sunday Dinner: a Savor the South Cookbook,” by Bridgette A. Lacy (UNC Press, 2015).
1/2 cup white granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 cups sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces shredded unsweetened coconut
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together. Add the cornstarch, milk, and butter and blend well. Add the coconut and stir until incorporated. Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake until firm, about 40-45 minutes.
Cool and serve.
Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie