“I can order one for you,” the butcher says in Spanish when I ask if he knows where I can get a machete.
“No, that’s alright,” I reply, feeling awkward about placing a machete order, “but do you know of a place in the neighborhood where I can get one,” I ask.
“Well, there’s a place up the street, but the ones they sell are crap,” he replies. I can tell he’s a knife guy. “What do you need it for,” he asks.
“To split a coconut,” I respond.
“Oh, just use a cleaver,” he says, smiling, proudly holding up his own.
Another Sunday in El Barrio, everything is closed, and I’m attempting a two coconut desert, the only problem is I don’t have any way to split them open. I’m making tembleque for the first time, and I’ve already hit a snag.
Tembleque is a common Puerto Rican dessert with a wonderful name that refers to its trembling, wiggly texture, like panna cotta or flan mixed with jello.
When I would visit my grandmother, who we called Tata, in Puerto Rico she often bought tembleque from our favorite bakery in Bayamon. It always came in a round aluminum container with a clear plastic lid, revealing its sprinkled cinnamon topping. I would open it, breathe in the coconutty cinnamon aroma, and we would sit on the terraza, or porch, and eat it out of the container with a spoon.
Continuing on the Cocina Criolla experiment, I dove into Chef Carmen’s tembleque. I was inspired by the gorgeous Easter tembleques on the Hungry Sofia blog, but I was committed to sticking to the original recipe and using whole dried coconuts to make my own coconut milk.
Tembleque has only five ingredients, and one, orange flower water, is a bit obscure. An ingredient common in Middle Eastern and Moroccan cuisine, I went to 10 different stores looking for it. After striking out for the 8th time, a nearby bodega owner suggested I check a botánica—a store that sells herbal and alternative medicines and religious objects and candles—since this ingredient is also used to calm nerves.
So I headed over to Justo Botánica. Founded in 1930 on 104th St and Lexington Avenue, its owner, Jorge Vargas, is a charming man in his mid-60s who always wears a newsboy cap with a button-down shirt and high waist pants; and like any good curandero, or spiritual healer, he is eerily perceptive of what’s going on in your life. He greeted me at the door when I visit him as if he’d seen me yesterday – even though it had been at least 6 months since I was last there to purchase incense. Jorge recently moved his store a few blocks up to Lexington and 107th St, reportedly because he could no longer afford the rent on the original space. And as I expected, he had the orange flower water or agua de azahar.
Once home with all my ingredients, but still down one coconut splitting tool, I devised a plan. I would drill a hole in each coconut to drain the water, which is also used in the dessert, and then would use a kitchen knife and a hammer to split the coconut in half.
The drilling and draining were easy, but cracking the coconut was tougher than I thought. I broke the tip off of one of my crappy knives, seriously dulled my good knife, and ended up using two knives and a hammer to split the coconut. A machete or cleaver would have been much easier.
Then, another challenge. I thought once I split the coconut I could just scoop out the flesh, but I must have gotten that impression from eating fresh coconut in Puerto Rico. But in a dry coconut the meat is totally solid, and after I’d cracked the coconut I had to knock off the hard outer shell with a hammer. Then I grated the meat, combined it with warm water, and pressed it through a sieve.
That whole process took about two hours. That’s one hour per coconut.
But once that was done, the rest was a breeze. And despite my broken knife tip, the tiny cuts on my hands, the incredible mess I made using a hammer to get the hard, hairy shell off (the coconut milk that overflowed from the food processor onto my countertop, and how I was two hours late making dinner because I underestimated how long it would take to tackle the coconut), it was amazing. I got all emotional when I took my first bite, the fresh, sweet coconut flavor blending with floral notes and nutty cinnamon, reminding me of summers with Tata.
A few important lessons on my path to Cocina Criolla enlightenment.
- 1. Get a cleaver… and safety goggles.
- 2. There’s a reason why food processors have liquid fill-lines.
- 3. Complicating simple things can end in magic.
- 1. 1 large dried coconut, or 2 small dried coconuts, reserving the coconut water **
- 2. 3 ½ cups of hot water (use the reserved coconut water to make a full 3 ½ cups)
- 3. ½ cup corn starch (maicena/maizena)
- 4. 2/3 cup sugar
- 5. ½ tsp salt
- 6. 1 tsp orange flower water (agua de azahar)
- 7. Ground cinnamon
- Carefully crack or drill a hole in the coconut, and pour the coconut water through a fine mesh sieve into a container.
- Split the coconut in half. Remove tough outer shell, then peel the dark skin off the coconut meat. Rinse thoroughly, dry, then grate. (I used the grating attachment on my food processor.)
- Combine grated coconut with 3 ½ cups of hot water and coconut water mixture. Mix well and press with a potato masher or ricer to get out all of the coconut milk. Set pressed, grated coconut aside in case you need to reprocess. (I used a food processor to puree the grated coconut.)
- Pour coconut milk through a fine mesh strainer. You should have 4 cups of milk. (If you’re short, add a bit more warm water to the grated coconut and press again.)
- In a large pot combine the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and orange flower water. Slowly whisk in the coconut milk until well incorporated.
- Heat the pot over medium high heat and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it starts to thicken. Lower the heat to medium and continue stirring until it barely begins to boil.
- Remove from heat and immediately pour into a 6″ by 3″ round mold. Flip onto a plate and sprinkle with cinnamon, or scoop right out of the container and serve in small bowls.
**A few weeks after making this I replicated the recipe with canned coconut milk, just to see if the hard way really was better. The original, laborious tembleque was the best. And, as much as I wanted the canned milk version to be better, or even just as good, it wasn’t. It was much sweeter than the original (even though I’d decreased the sugar) and it had a bit of a metallic aftertaste and the texture was more creamy than wiggly. I threw the tembleque leftovers away after the dinner. I couldn’t bear to eat it, having previously experienced perfection.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.