May 19, 2009

Coconut Jello

One of the desserts I grew up with is coconut jello. I love its two layers: the top, less dense coconut milk and the bottom, clear agar. I think coconut jello is more of a Burmese than Chinese dessert, especially as Burmese recipes use coconut more often (based on my limited observations). In fact, one of my favorite Burmese noodle soups (ohn-no khau-swe) is coconut based.

I find it interesting how there are camps of people who love coconut (like my friend whose entire wedding cake was coconut) and those who hate it. I am probably exaggerating a little, but most people I ask will fall into the “I like it” or “I avoid it” category. While I “like it,” Nathan will “avoid it.” He tolerates a taste of it and sometimes will eat a little more (like the ohn-no khau-swe) if the coconut is not too overpowering. I love that despite his reluctance toward coconut, he still tries these dishes. I agree that like almost anything else, there is an upper limit to how much coconut you can eat.

Last week I found a food blog dedicated to Burmese food. The blog is called hsa*ba, which in Burmese translates to “go ahead and eat!” I found their recipe for coconut jello and was curious how it compared to my mom’s recipe.

The jello is a very simple combination of agar agar, sugar, water, and coconut milk. The hsa*ba’s recipe also included a tiny amount of salt.

The star ingredient of the recipe—coconut milk— is thick and creamy and can be purchased canned. I did not realize until recently (hmm, perhaps a few days ago) that you can make coconut milk at home! Dry, unsweetened coconut, when combined with near-boiling water in a food processor and pulsed briefly, yields coconut milk after you strain the liquid. I am now on the lookout for desiccated coconut.

Agar agar (also called agar) is a gelatinous substance made from seaweed (it often is in the seaweed salads served in Japanese restaurants). I think it also is used in laboratories for making gels (as in gel electrophoresis) or agar plates for microbiology. Diverting fact: it is 80% fiber and can be used as a laxative. It is sold in plastic packages as dried strips and lasts a long time in a dry, cool place.

After you cut the agar agar down to a manageable size, you can dissolve it in boiling water and add sweetners and flavorings to make a dessert jelly.

So how did the recipes compare? I found it interesting that in my mom’s recipe, you boil the water, sugar, and agar; the coconut milk is added at the end. In contrast, hsa*ba’s recipe boils the water, coconut milk, and agar, leaving the sugar to the very end. I found that boiling the coconut milk at the beginning makes the mixture very frothy, and I was constantly keeping an eye on it, fearing it would boil over. Also, hsa*ba’s recipe uses a one-to-one ratio of water and coconut milk, whereas my mom’s uses a four and a half-to-one ratio.

These different ratios and the presence or absence of salt really alter the final taste! Hsa*ba’s was slightly salty with a softer texture. Over three-quarters of the jello was coconut, which I thought was too much. In contrast, my mom’s jello (pictured above) was a little sweeter, firmer to the bite, and refreshing; less than half of it was coconut. I think four times out of five I would favor my mom’s. Nathan seemed to agree with me as well, although he also felt that the other jello had its own merits (after the proportion of coconut milk is reduced).

I am curious which one David (my coconut wedding cake friend) would prefer. I am just sad that he and his wife no longer live in Boston; the coconut jello would not last the trip out to Seattle!

Recipes

From my mom

1 1/2 ounce package of agar agar, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups sugar
7 1/2 cups water
1 can coconut milk (400 mL)
  1. Combine sugar and water and bring to a boil. Add cut agar agar and continue simmering over medium-low heat until agar agar has fully dissolved, about 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Add coconut milk and stir until completely mixed. Take off heat and pour into a 8 inch by 8 inch pan.
  3. Allow to cool to room temperature (during this time the two layers will be separating, so do not handle it too roughly) and then put into refrigerator.

Yield: I suppose it depends whether you are in the “like it” or “avoid it” camp

Adapted from hsa*ba blog

10 g agar agar strands
350 mL fresh coconut milk
350 mL water
85 grams sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Soak the agar agar in a bowl of water for 10 minutes until softened. Drain and cut the strands in half and place into a saucepan.
  2. Add the coconut milk and water to the pan and bring to a boil. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently and keeping a close eye so that it does not bubble over (it definitely requires a closer eye).
  3. Cook until all the agar agar strands have completely dissolved, about 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the heat off, add the sugar and salt, stirring until both are completely dissolved.
  4. Pour into a container, approximately 17 cm x 12 cm x 5 cm, let it set at room temperature, then cover and refrigerate.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Tags: baking Burmese coconut 
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