Monday, July 20, 2015

Rebecca's Ambrosia

A decadent, historical fruit salad featuring my favorite fruit!

This is apparently the summer of fruit salads for me, or at least the summer of fruit. It seems like most of the recipes I've made this summer have featured fruit in some way, and this one is no exception.

Ambrosia might be best known to people as either the food of the Greek gods, or a fruity, creamy dessert that's a stable of Southern get togethers, but this isn't quite that. If you're familiar with what most people think of as traditional Southern ambrosia, you might be surprised at how simple and light its earlier ancestor was.

Ambrosia first began popping up in American cookbooks in the late 1800's, and while its exact origin story appears to be a mystery - digging around on the internet didn't turn up any clear creation myths for this fruit salad - it's been a fairly popular treat to eat since then. I don't think it's quite as common up north - I definitely can't say I remember seeing it on any dessert tables at any functions I've ever been to - but I had a coworker who made it pretty frequently for his family!

Early ambrosia was literally just fruit and sugar, nicely layered and sprinkled in sugar in a dish. More modern interpretations include marshmallows, a variety of canned fruit, cherries, nuts, and a creamy element like sour cream, yogurt, whipped cream, or even pudding!

The recipe I used comes from the May 1907 issue of Cooking Club Magazine, republished on Tori's Kitchen and complete with beautiful pictures and excellent instructions on how to make your own. This admittedly would probably be something Samantha would have been snacking on more than Rebecca, but that being said, there's no reason the Rubins couldn't have treated themselves to this tasty dish on a hot summer day, especially as canned goods made products like pineapple a lot more affordable and easier to prepare for families that weren't close to a pineapple plantation.

Instead of mixing everything together into a bowl, this recipe recommends making individual servings for your guests with each of the ingredients layered at the bottom. To start, you supreme three oranges and slice the pieces up into bite sized morsels before putting them on the bottom of the bowl.

Supreme-ing an orange worked out to be a lot trickier than I thought it would be. To do it right, you need to skin the orange so you see mostly orange flesh poking through, and then cut into the sections so you're left with beautiful orange slices without any of the white or clear webbing on the outside of the sections. I don't know if my oranges were just uncooperative or what, but this was really tricky to get right, and I mangled quite a few of them!

Fortunately, I didn't need intact slices, so chopping them up covered this up pretty well.

Once you're done, you sprinkle on a little bit of sugar!

Next comes a layer of coconut. The original recipe uses unsweetened dried coconut, but Tori recommends using sweetened if you're looking for a sweeter dessert rather than a dry fruit salad. I used sweetened just because that's what we had in the pantry!

Next, add a layer of thinly sliced bananas.

Then add some sliced pineapple! This can be fresh or canned. To make it authentic, use canned. It'll save you some time with prep work, too!

And then you continue in this pattern until your bowls are full! Unfortunately, mine were tiny enough that I could really only do a layer of each before I ran out of room, and then just garnished the top with some extra orange and banana. I sprinkled this with sugar, and added more of my favorite ingredient in this dish - coconut!

This gets chilled in the fridge before serving, and looks quite colorful and elegant when displayed in glass bowls. I was pretty impressed that such a simple dish could look so pretty in the right serving dish!

So, there you have it: a simple but tasty fruit salad. It's interesting to snack on these tropical fruits and think that this would have been a rare treat for a middle class family back in the early 1900's. We take so much of this stuff for granted, where Rebecca or Nellie would probably have been really excited to try something that definitely wasn't grown in New York City and wouldn't have been readily available or affordable before Dole and other companies began exporting their canned pineapple. These four fruits with a little sugar would have been just as decadent and tasty as a chocolate cake or bowl of ice cream for novelty alone.

For us, it's a little on the tame side, but is definitely a nice, refreshing treat to have. I'm a fan of all four fruits in it, so for me, this definitely hit the spot and had a fun assortment of flavors and textures. Plus, while this is probably a little too sugary to be considered a truly guilt free dessert, it's definitely better for you than guzzling an entire carton of home made ice cream. I've been trying to find good ways to enjoy sweet treats without devouring an entire war cake in one sitting, and this definitely scratches that itch without making you feel guilty for the rest of the day.

Overall, even if this was kind of a pain in the butt to make thanks to my oranges not cooperating with being beautifully sliced open, this was a fun peek into the past I'd definitely be willing to make again. Not to turn my nose up at the more modern version, but it was fun to have a light, refreshing dessert that didn't make me feel like I needed to make up for indulging by hopping on the treadmill. Always a plus in my book!

Also, coconut is just one of those foods for me. Yum!

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