Home for the Holidays | Orange Blossom Ambrosia

Taking a Southern favorite back to its roots.

Sometimes the best things are the simplest things, and this sweet treat makes the case.

Ambrosia has surely been the topic of as many culinary arguments as any holiday dish. Most debates begin with "MY mama's ambrosia......", or "Grandmother's ambrosia......", or "We NEVER had ______ in our ambrosia......", and likely find folks disagreeing on any number of ambrosial elements:

is it a salad? is it a dessert?
mayo or no? whipped cream? sour cream? marshmallow cream? any cream?
canned fruit or fresh? pineapple? grapefruit? grapes? cherries? fruit cocktail?
marshmallows? no marshmallows? those little colored marshmallows?
pecans? almonds? coconut??

And then, of course, the proper dish in which to serve the fluffy cloud of salad dessert whatever.

Poor diners up North may have no idea what the fuss, or the dish, is all about. This is what I know:

Ambrosia is a traditionally southern fruit dish which derives its name from the Greek, meaning "food (or nectar) of the gods". It is thought to have arrived in our culinary lexicon somewhere in the late 19th century, and originally was made of 3 ingredients: orange, coconut, sugar. Early versions of the dish were found country-wide, however a massive freeze halted the citrus harvest in most of the country around the turn of the century, relegating most citrus-growing to the deep south, and along with it, the popularity of this seasonal citrus-based salad. While coconut is the most divisive ingredient in modern ambrosias, traditional dishes vary little, and always include coconut, which gained favor when this formerly exotic fruit began import from the West Coast via the Transcontinental rails.

So there you have it. The original ambrosia. Layers of oranges, peeled and sliced, fresh coconut, grated, and white sugar sprinkled between. The oranges give off juice that combines with sugar to create a very light syrup. And no one really cared about what it was called or how it was served.

Forgive me if I veer off of both the original, and the modern versions and meet somewhere in the middle. I've settled on just 6 ingredients, cut out the tedium of peeling, pithing, and slicing by using tender and petite mandarin oranges, given it a little Middle Eastern flair with the addition of pomegranate seeds and a splash of orange blossom water, suggested the optional indulgence of a generous pour of cream or coconut milk, and providing 2 options for coconut flakes: the traditional cracking, peeling, and grating, or purchased unsweetened coconut flakes from your grocer's bulk section.

Disclaimer: Will I eat that creamy, fluffy, sweet, canned fruit plus bananas plus pecan dessert salad? My WEIGHT in it, I will. I love that stuff. I LOVE MARSHMALLOWS. But this is not the place. I'm being a grownup. Now, let's get to it.

2 lbs honey mandarins, peeled, pithed, and sectioned
2T sugar (I used palm sugar, and I loved the result, but plain white sugar will do, too.)
1 c unsweetened flaked coconut (see instructions below for handling a whole coconut, or procure flakes from your grocer's bulk section. Do not use sweetened coconut.)
1T orange flower water (sold in Middle Eastern markets and found, also, in liquor stores with mixers---oooh, hello Ramos Gin Fizz)
1 medium pomegranate, seeded
Optional: a healthy pour of heavy cream, or canned (unsweetened) coconut milk if you're eating light. But it's the holidays. So whatever.

In a large glass bowl, layer mandarin sections and coconut, sprinkling with sugar. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Next day, uncover and toss. Drizzle orange flower water over, tasting as you go. Cover and refrigerate 4-12 hours.

Toss well, plate individually, and top with pomegranate seeds. Drizzle over with heavy cream or canned coconut milk, if using.

Ingredient Notes:

  • Honey mandarins are small, sweet oranges available in the South during midwinter. Clementines, tangerines, or any small, sweet orange will suffice, but the sweeter the better, as we are reducing the usually recommended sugar substantially.
  • As noted, I used palm sugar instead of white sugar. Their is no heat or actual cooking this dish, and other sweeteners, like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, etc, will not yield the same results.
  • Using a fresh coconut? Try this proven method from Southern Living: Pierce soft areas at the top of coconut (the eyes) with an ice pick or clean screwdriver. Drain the milk. Bake coconut at 400° for 15 minutes. Using oven mitts, wrap hot coconut with a kitchen towel, bringing 4 corners together and twisting to form a handle. Hold the handle in one hand as you hit wrapped coconut with a hammer. Remove meat from shell with a knife.Note: Heating helps separate the meat from the thick, outer shell. A thin, brown skin will still cover the meat. Remove brown skin with a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Grate coconut--you'll have 2 1/2 to 3 cups of coconut.
  • This, photo above, is orange flower water, also referred to as orange blossom water. It is the fragrance of heaven. Dab some behind your ears. Sweeten a glass of iced tea. Infuse baked goods with just a touch. Use it sparingly. A little goes a loooong way. 
  • Need help seeding that beautiful pomegranate? A quick internet search will net all you need to see and know, like this.

Ambrosia, by Edna LewisFood and Wine Magazine
How Ambrosia Became a Southern Christmas Tradition by Robert Moss, Serious Eats
The History of Ambrosia, Alabama Chanin Journal

This Holiday season on Notes from Maggie's Farm, look for Dressing 3 Ways: Oyster, Rice, & Cornbread, Mashed Potatoes with Giblet Gravy, Golden Yeast Rolls, Lemony Green Beans with Sherry, Shallot & Hazelnut, Oyster Dressing-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Roasted Quail, Sherried Sage Peppercorn pan sauce, and not shown, Cranberry Apricot Brandy Sauce, Persimmon Pudding, and Orange Blossom Ambrosia.

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