Ambrosia — food of the gods. And food of the Southerner, especially around Christmas. It’s so good you’ll think the deities bore it down straight from Mount Olympus on winged feet and silver platters.
I remember making the ambrosia every year with Granny, her kitchen table command central. It was a process, and Granny was particular about it. It’s good to be particular about certain things, to take the care to make sure they’re done just right.
First we’d tackle the coconut, which requires tools. This is where you get to vent all your holiday frustrations. Poke the coconut’s “eye” out by driving screwdriver through it with a hammer. Drain the milk. Bake it in the oven a little while. Wrap the whole thing in a towel and smash it with your hammer until its cracked in a few large pieces. Pick the white coconut meat apart from its brown shell and grate all the pieces. Don’t let a little bit go to waste even if you’ve grated it down to your fingertips. After all, it’s not Christmas until you see red blood on white coconut.
Then on to the oranges. Peel them carefully. If the rind is thick, you can save it and candy it so you want it to be in nice big pieces so you’ll have uniform slices later on. Remove all the strings and pith, every little bit of white you can pull, cut, or scrape off. Slice the oranges horizontally over a bowl to catch all the juices. It’s important to capture the juice.
Next comes canned pineapple. You think that would be easy, but Granny insisted that we slice each pineapple ring in half horizontally because they are too thick otherwise. The idea is to have all the fruit slices thin enough that a serving spoon can easily cut through the layers when the ambrosia is served.
Speaking of layers, once all the fruit is sliced and grated, it’s time to assemble the ambrosia, preferably in a crystal bowl so you can see how pretty it looks in the dish. Start with a layer of oranges in the bottom. Then a layer of pineapple. Then sprinkle a few spoons of confectioners sugar over the top. Then a layer of coconut. Then more oranges. Then more pineapple. Sprinkle the sugar. More coconut. And so on.
You’ll want to end with coconut on the top. But when you get to the next to last layer, to that final pineapple, you’ll pour all the reserved orange juice and some of the pineapple juice over the whole thing. Now Granny will probably spin in her grave when I tell you this next part. Here’s my secret to the food of the gods: nectar of the gods, Cointreau. I sprinkle a shot or two of Cointreau over the top of the whole thing so it sinks down through the layers and gets all good.
Once you’ve added the juices and the Cointreau, finish with a thick layer of coconut. Oh, but you’re not done yet. Get some Maraschino cherries and cut them into quarters so that you can use them to form some sort of Christmas design on top. I usually go for something resembling a poinsettia. I think adding the decoration to the top makes the whole dish very special and festive. To not have it would be like making up your whole face and not putting any lipstick on — it just wouldn’t be right.
Now I’m about to wade into controversial waters, but some things just need to be said out loud. Here’s what ambrosia does NOT have in it: bananas, grapes, nuts, marshmallows, sour cream, yogurt, and/or, God forbid, mayonnaise. Oranges, pineapple, and coconut are the only ingredients you need. To otherwise adulterate the ambrosia might just incur the wrath of the gods … or your Granny.