Tembleque (Coconut Custard)

Tembleque (pronounced "Tem-Bleh-Keh") is the chief custard-based dessert in our repertoire. It's been around in Puerto Rican cuisine for as long as anyone can remember. And it makes sense since coconuts are so prevalent in the island of Puerto Rico. Let me add that tembleque makes a fine dessert for the holidays, be it Hanukkah or Christmas. Something sweet to liven up this time of year.

When I was growing up back on the block, it was a  family favorite. And in those days it was a hell of a bother to prepare.This was long before coconut milk began arriving on store shelves. We used genuine coconuts to extract the coconut milk required in the dish. First you took 2 large ripe coconuts, pierced them with a screwdriver, and drained their liquid into a small bowl. Then you split the coconuts and removed the inner white meat from the shell; and then separated the brown skin from the coconut meat. Next, you broke the coconut meat into pieces, rinsed them under cold water, and grated them finely. You placed this in a bowl; and added enough water to reserve coconut liquid so that it measured 3 1/2 cups. You boiled this liquid and added the grated coconut. You drained this liquid in a colander or strainer, pressing with hands to extract the coconut milk into a bowl. Next step, you heated 1 cup water, adding the same coconut shreds as before and again strained it into the bowl that held the coconut milk. Finally, you discarded the shreds. And this was the coconut milk that formed the basis of the tembleque.

The above method is interesting but time consuming.Today you can just go out and buy a couple of cans of coconut milk in any store. No need for any of the mess and bother described above. Which, by the way, is the original recipe I give in my cookbook Puerto Rican Cuisine in America (Avalon Books, Running Press). So, try out this fine dessert. It will leave you hankering for more.

(Coconut Custard)

2 cups coconut milk
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Ground nutmeg
Ground cinnamon

1. In a large pot or saucepan, combine cornstarch, sugar, salt and vanilla. Stir in coconut milk, a little at a time, and blend well.
2. Cook on moderate heat, stirring constantly with a  wooden spoon until mixture thickens.
3. Reduce heat to low and stir until mixture boils.
4. Remove from heat and pour into a slightly wet mold, or 6 small molds, or round pan.
5. Let cool, and refrigerate until firm. Invert into molds or serving dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon and serve.
    6 servings.