Ambrosia! The food of the gods. And a traditional holiday dish, if you’re from the South.
The oldest version of ambrosia is the one I grew up with. It showed up in cookbooks in the early 1800s, and it had just three ingredients: oranges, grated coconut, and sugar. A hundred years later, people began adding other ingredients. Pineapple. Pecans. Maraschino cherries. Whipped cream. Sour cream. Marshmallows.
Those other concoctions we called holiday fruit salad, but in my family, they weren’t ambrosia.
To me, ambrosia is still and will always be oranges and coconut, with just a smidge of sugar. If you want to cheat, you can do what I do and make it with presweetened shredded coconut. That saves a lot of time, although I don’t think my grandmother would have approved.
Traditional Southern ambrosia is a fabulous side dish for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s fresh and light, cutting through the richness of the other dishes on the table. Its simplicity makes a nice contrast to the more complex holiday foods.
What’s more, it’s best when made a day or two in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. That means that, on Thanksgiving day, all you have to do with the ambrosia is turn it out into a pretty serving dish. Easy-peasy.
Ambrosia is as festive as a holiday side dish can be. And it works if you’re vegan, or if you’re on the New Calendar and observing a Lenten Thanksgiving.
Traditional Southern Ambrosia
The instructions below make four to six servings. If you’re having the whole extended family over for Thanksgiving, just cut up more oranges!
Three large or four medium Valencia oranges. If you can’t get Valencia oranges, navel oranges will do.
Sweetened flaked coconut. I use Angel Flake; sometimes off brands are dry or have an off taste. If you want to use fresh coconut, cut off the brown skin that adheres to the white meat, and grate on a box grater.
Cut the top and the bottom off each orange. You want to cut a thick enough slice to remove the peel, the white pith, and the membrane.
With a sharp knife, slice the peel off the orange. Again, cut deeply enough to remove the peel, the pith, and the membrane. It’s easier to do if you cut from top to bottom, rather than going around the orange the way you’d peel an apple.
Over a large bowl, slide the knife between the flesh and the membranes of each segment. Remove any seeds, and drop the flesh of the orange into the bowl. When you’ve done every section, throw the membranes away. When you’ve got all the orange flesh in the bowl, there may be a good bit of orange juice in the bottom of the bowl. That’s okay.
Add about a third of a bag of sweetened flaked coconut and toss. If it doesn’t look like it has enough coconut, add more. It’s hard to tell you exactly how much to use, because it’s going to depend on the oranges you used.
If you decided to use fresh coconut, taste the orange-and-coconut mixture, and add sugar to taste. You probably won’t need much if you used Valencia oranges.
Store the ambrosia in the refrigerator overnight. The coconut will soak up some of the juice from the oranges.
I like ambrosia best served chilled. But if you want to serve it at room temperature, you can. Just take it out of the fridge an hour or two before dinner time.
Fasting for Thanksgiving?: How our family handles Thanksgiving on the New Calendar.
Impossible Coconut Cherry Cookies: These bite-sized sweets have no sweeteners, no gluten, no dairy. The impossible part? They’re delicious!
Almond Flour Biscuits or Almond Flour Bread: These biscuits aren’t as light and fluffy as the ones you make with white flour and buttermilk. But they’re gluten-free, and they work really well.