Monday, March 20, 2006

How Not To Jam

There is, of course, a fine line between bravery and insanity, but I have never been one to toe lines, fine or otherwise. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but not in my kitchen. I mention this because over the weekend, armed with little more than desire and a very short list of ingredients, I set out to make myself some coconut jam. I got the idea from lindy over at Toast, of course. She received a jar of some sort of caramelized coconut curd from an Eastern acquaintance, and she made it sound very good and even harder to find. The coconut jam was a commercial product, and she had no idea how to make it. The only clues were the ingredients (fresh coconut milk and sugar) and her description of the taste.

It was the description of the taste that got me going, because she made it sound very like a coconut-flavored version of that caramel sauce that you make by submerging a can of sweetened condensed milk in a pan of simmering water for several hours. I did some searching online and didn't come up with any similar recipes (I did find one that involved a lot of eggs, and I didn't really want to use that, though I did figure that if my attempt failed miserably, I could at least mix the result with eggs and make a nice custard pie), but I once made that caramel sauce out of sweetened condensed milk, and I reasoned that if I could first make the equivalent of sweetened condensed milk with coconut milk, I could then put it in a jar and simmer it for several hours and have the desired result. I was and am aware that there is no reason to think that coconut milk can be treated the same way as cow's milk, but why should I let a little thing like logic stop me?

And, for that matter, why should I let a little thing like a near total lack of experience making preserves deter me? Sure, I don't really know how to make jam, but there are recipes, and I can follow them, right? The facts that there are no recipes for the exact thing I'm making and that I really don't like following recipes were mere details. The fact that I generally lack the patience for preserve making might have been of more concern to me had I been thinking clearly, as might the fact that I have even less time and patience at this time of year than at any other. But fatigue, in addition to reducing patience, reduces the ability to think clearly, so I'm inclined to forgive myself for the occasional flight of culinary fancy. After all, sometimes they work out very well.

And sometimes they don't.

I did do some research, especially into how to make fresh coconut milk. God forbid that when I'm trying a new preparation, and one with no reasonable expectation of success, that I should make it easier on myself by just picking up a few cans of coconut milk. After all, the first ingredient on the jar was fresh coconut milk. I could tell from the outset that, especially given my current time limitations, this was going to be a two-day (or, more accurately, two-evening) preparation. One day to make the coconut milk and a second to make the jam. So on Friday night, I stopped on my way home at one of the local markets and picked up two coconuts of decent size.

A fresh coconut is a very seductive thing, but it usually turns on you. It is clearly the incubus of the tropical fruit universe. The seduction has to do with something very succulent trapped within such a foreboding exterior. Plus, it sloshes when you shake it, and how cool is that? That's why kids love the whole coconuts. The sloshing. That, and the fact that they can force their parents to do all the dirty work, and they can just eat what's eventually extracted.

That said, my coconuts were fairly well behaved and gave me rather less grief than is usual and expected. The eyes were soft enough that I could puncture them with a skewer, and then I followed up with a Phillips head screwdriver to make the holes larger. I understand that the preferred way to puncture the eyes is with a power drill, but I couldn't be bothered. Anyway. Once I had three holes of decent size in each of the coconuts, I inverted them over bowls to catch their juices. Then, when they were empty, I stuck them in a 325 degree oven for twelve minutes. While they were heating, I filtered the coconut water. I had about a cup and a half.

I took the coconuts out of the oven (I had them on a half-sheet pan) and I wrapped one of them in a kitchen towel, put it on my pastry marble, and began bashing it with my marble rolling pin (my hammer, you understand, being in the same place as my power drill, which is to say down in the basement, aka not in the kitchen). If you treat your coconuts in this way, you will want to bash them into six or eight pieces so that it will be relatively easy to separate the flesh from the shell, without having to use a knife much. If you get a piece of flesh that is especially recalcitrant (and, after all that bashing, who can really blame it?), then the tip of a paring knife will usually convince it that it has better things to do than hang out with a coconut shell.

In doing all this, your coconut flesh will pick up some of the shell material, so once you have liberated the flesh of both coconuts, you will want to put them in a colander and rinse them well.

If my research sources are to be believed, commercial coconut cream is made by directly pressing the flesh of a coconut. As you might imagine, such a process would require a press of unusual strength, and I have nothing like that in my kitchen. This situation naturally makes me most extremely resentful of a universe that is so unjust that it would leave me without my own duck press. A duck press, you may not be shocked to read, is what one uses to make pressed duck. It is a large contraption made of thick, strong brass. It looks like nothing so much as a poorly designed medieval torture device. You put a duck carcass inside the duck press, and then you turn a giant brass wheel which forces a large brass plate down onto the carcass. In the face of this massive pressure, the juices flee the carcass and come out through a small spout, whence they are made into a sauce in which is poached the pieces of duck that were removed from the carcass before the carcass was pressed. I saw Julia Child do this many years ago on the TV. I have never been able to entirely convince myself that the whole thing was not some elaborate ruse, but if it is, it certainly extends far beyond the bounds of Julia Child's kitchen. You can, in fact, order a duck press online for the low, low price of $1,995. This may seem like a lot of money, but consider that a) you can actually find it online for under $1,500; b) you'll certainly be the only person on your block in possession of a duck press; and c) as status symbols go, it's a lot cheaper than a Hummer.

These excellent reasons notwithstanding, I do not own a duck press, and they are sufficiently uncommon that I could not even find one on Ebay. I did not go so far as to check craigslist, but I doubt that I would have had any better luck there. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that V. would not be amused to see a duck press taking up space in the kitchen, but if you happen to have a spare one that you're not using and you feel like loaning it to me, I can probably hide it in the garage.

Since I didn't feel like relying on the kindness of readers, however, I went ahead and made the coconut milk/cream with what I had on hand. Most recipes tell you to shred the coconut flesh and then steep it in hot water, but I couldn't see why that would be any better than cutting it into relatively small pieces and then putting it in the blender with hot water.

I will say that, while later steps in the process went somewhat awry, I did get very nice coconut milk and coconut cream from my process. It is not difficult, but it does take a while, and it's well suited to an evening when you feel like reading a book or watching TV and taking occasional breaks to mind your coconut.

Two medium coconuts should give you about two pounds of coconut flesh. I ate some of mine while I was bashing and so forth, so I ended up with about thirty-one ounces, which I ate down to thirty ounces. You should check the coconut for any bad spots. I found a couple of spots that smelled somewhat fermented to me, and I trimmed off the brown outer flesh in those spots, but otherwise, I left it on. More flavor, I figured.

Anyway, the recipe:

Coconut Milk/Cream

30 ounces coconut flesh, cut into small chunks
liquid drained from the coconut, well strained
additional water to make about 6.5 cups in total

Heat your coconut liquid and water until it is too hot to touch comfortably, but not to the simmer or boil. Put about a cup of it in your blender, then add about a third of the coconut pieces. Add another cup or so of the hot liquid, then blend until the coconut is cut up very fine.

Let the mixture steep until it is lukewarm, then strain it well.

Repeat the process twice more, or until all the coconut is used up. Put the strained liquid in pitchers or other containers, cover, and refrigerate.

Because of the consistency of coconut, it is not uncommon for a piece of it to get wedged around one of the blades of your blender. If this happens, you will know because the blender will be blending at a very reduced speed. Turn the blender off, dump everything in a bowl, free up the blade, put everything back in the blender, and blend again. I had to do this once each with the first and third batches. You could probably avoid this problem by cutting your pieces fine than I did or by crating them coarsely first, but I think I did less work overall by taking an extra minute to free the blender blades. If you started with the hot water and added the coconut gradually while the blender was running, you might also avoid the stuck-blade problem.

Depending on the size of your blender, it may take you more or fewer batches to fully use up the coconut. You may also have to use a bit more or less water to make the whole thing blendable. Obviously, you don't want it too wet or your coconut milk/cream will be weak.

I strained my coconut slurry with a French press coffee maker. It worked very well indeed, getting a very high percentage of the liquid out of the slurry. I reserved the coconut solids and put them all on a half-sheet pan and into a slow oven. I had them at 300 degrees for about an hour, stirring occasionally, and then at 325 for another twenty minutes. Then I turned off the oven and let them sit overnight. In the morning, I put the solids in a plastic bag. I wasn't sure that they'd be good for much, but I was very happy to have them later.

I have read that after the coconut flesh is pressed to give up its cream, the remaining solids are steeped in hot water to produce coconut milk. You would expect such a process to give a liquid with a significantly lower percentage of fat. The liquid that I had started to separate almost immediately, with the fat rising to the top. It continued to separate under refrigeration.

When all was said and done, I had about a cup and a third of coconut cream, and a liter of what I considered coconut milk, but which might really be something else. In either case, they were both delicious. The coconut cream is of a consistency that is something like whipped cream, only more liquid.

I would, at this point, have been well advised to either add some pineapple, sugar, and rum to my coconut liquid or to have used it all to make a nice curry or perhaps some coconut rice pudding. But awash in the heady success of having made really good coconut milk/cream/whatever the first time, I decided to forge ahead with the coconut jam.

Additional research indicated that the commercial manufacture of sweetened condensed milk involves the removal of sixty percent of the water from the milk. It is then cooked with sugar and canned. The final product has between forty and forty-five percent sugar. So I says to myself, "No problem. Separate the coconut cream from the other liquid, reduce the other liquid by half, add a bunch of sugar, add the cream back, cook it all some more, put it in canning jars, and boil it until it screams for mercy.

I am not altogether certain that this plan cannot be made to work, but it didn't really work for me. I'm not sure whether the flaw is in design or execution (or, more likely, both), but I do know some things that I would do differently if I were to try again. First, I'd reduce the coconut milk/water more. I didn't measure the remaining liquid before I mixed it with the coconut cream, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't reduce it by half. It was probably closer to a third. Still, it looked fine, and it continued to look nice and white when I returned it and the coconut cream to the saucepan and started to heat them up. It wasn't until I added the sugar that the whole mess turned tan. I likely also added too much sugar. I used three cups. And maybe I shouldn't have added those two tablespoons of very good rum, but I certainly couldn't think of a good reason not to at the time. And then, I wasn't sure how much to cook it after the sugar had been added. I ended up going to something like 220 degrees, and it took me a good while to get there, since I didn't want to burn it, but at that point, the pan would no longer contain the bubbling mass, and my boiled jars had been waiting for a while, so I went ahead and ladled it into the jelly jars, put the lids and rims on, and put the four half-pints into a boiling water bath.

When the jars went into the boiling water, what I had looked a lot more like coconut syrup than anything else. It did taste very good. It was somewhat overly sweet, but I figured I could just mix other stuff into it to cut the sweetness. It is likely that forty minutes of boiling was somewhat excessive. At that point, I lifted one of the jars out of the water with some tongs and I could tell that I had problems. It had separated. So I took al four jars out of the water and put them on a towel on the countertop. They all sealed (ping!) within a minute. Upon further rest, they separated further, into three distinct layers, of varying shades of beigish gray. Or perhaps grayish beige. In any case, they ended up looking like the flag of a very, very tedious country.

I boiled the jars on Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon, I opened one up. The top layer had crystallized somewhat. The bottom layer was a clear syrup, and the middle layer was just cloudy. It clearly wasn't what I'd been after, but it still smelled great. Anyway, I decided to make the most of it. I dumped one of the jars into a bowl, mixed it with some eggs, some milk, and a cup of the dried coconut salads, then turned it into a buttered souffle dish and baked it at 325 for forty-five minutes. Delicious. It is, of course, unlikely that you'll find yourself with a jar of unsuccessful coconut jam on your hands, but in case you do, I'll post the coconut pudding recipe once I've made a couple of minor adjustments, mainly having to do with the ratio of eggs and milk to coconut solids.


Anonymous Lindy said...

You, my friend, are entirely unique. I became hysterical somewhere around the discussion of the blender technique, where you mention the fact that you can tell when the coconut has become wedged in the blade, because the blending process becomes slower.

I'm not sure if I should even tell you this, but Kai has unearthed a traditional recipe for the jam, and she will be making this and posting about it, probably this weekend.There is a note about it on Toast, along with a link, probably to that very eggy version you found. But that one seems to be inauthentic, and there will be news on the real old fashioned kind-to follow.

Then again, you may not be wanting to see any coconuts whatsoever for a bit.

9:21 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

Dealing with the coconuts was actually kind of fun, if a bit messy. I would likely not have time to do it again for a few weeks, and I would probably want to do the coconut-bashing part when V. was not at home, but I'll be very excited to see what Kai comes up with.

10:51 AM  

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