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Caramelization: Exactly What is Going On Here?

Reader Molly wants to know what goes on — exactly — when sugar caramelizes. She says she hears the word “caramelization” bantered around quite a bit, but never hears it fully explained. Molly, I feel your pain. In the same way chemists love the word catalyst and physicists love resonance, TV chefs love caramelization. That and Maillard reaction. All are nice, neat, precise-sounding words that people use to describe phenomena that ultimately aren’t all that well understood. Caramelization itself is a bewilderingly complicated process, which no one has the time, energy, or corporate funding to sort out completely.

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Making Caribbean “Browning”

Ooh that’s artsy. What can I say, I get in those moods. “Browning” is the Caribbean version of Kitchen Bouquet or Grace. It’s a sauce additive, really just a brown coloring, used to give things like stews and gravies a deep, rich appearance. I myself am going to use it for Caribbean fruitcake. Given that the application is sweet rather than savory, it makes sense that Caribbean fruitcake lovers make their own, as homemade browning has no salt or meat or vegetable favors in it. It’s just deeply, deeply caramelized sugar that yes, tastes like the darkest of dark molasses, but then just a little bit delivers a whole lot of color with no taste to speak of.

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Caribbean Fruit Cake: The Soaked Fruit

The critical difference between a Caribbean fruitcake (or black cake, or wedding cake) and a North American fruit cake is the way the fruit is handled. Whereas we bake the fruit into the cake, then age the cake, they age the fruit first. And boy do they age it. Up to several years in some cases, which strikes me as extreme, though I’m not the expert here. Three months is plenty by most lights. I’ll squeeze in only two, but I still think I’ll have a fine cake in the end.

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Regarding the Caribbean Fruitcake

…or plum cake, or “black cake” or Christmas cake. It has a lot of names. I’ve been looking into this, and have learned that doing one of these right means macerating the fruit for a good long time. Which is to say: weeks or months. Indeed, a Jamaican friend of mine made it clear to me that islanders take this step extremely seriously. More seriously even than their northerly fruitcake-loving brethren. Where North Americans bake the cake early then age it, Caribbeans age the fruit then bake the cake. So you don’t just whip one of these up, in other words. Maybe what we’ll do is get a few components ready over the next week or so, lay them down, and then save the baking until closer to Christmas.

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Making Pan de Coco de Samaná

Pan de coco de Samaná is the American biscuit’s Caribbean cousin, from, you guessed it, Samaná, which is a northern coastal province of the Dominican Republic. The area is heavily Americanized, though not in the way you’d think. Free black Americans began moving there some 175 years ago. And when they came, they brought their food traditions with them. That included biscuits, which were already a “thing” in the early 1800’s. The trouble there, of course, was that dairy products were in relatively short supply in Samaná back then. But then as now, there were all kinds of coconuts around. e area is heavily Americanized, though not in the way you’d think. Free black Americans began moving there some 175 years ago. And when they came, they brought their food traditions with them. That included biscuits, which were already a “thing” in the early 1800’s. The trouble there, of course, was that dairy products were in relatively short supply in Samaná back then. But then as now, there were all kinds of coconuts around.

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All Hail the Coconut

Coconuts are the world’s most important nut. Three hundred billion of them are grown and harvested globally every year, an unimaginable number. However when you consider the vast growing range of the coconut tree, and the fact that the trees have no season — so they produce nuts year-round — it’s easy to see where you’d end up with a whole lot of nuts. I wrote below on the general utility of coconuts and coconut trees, but didn’t talk much about the role they’ve historically played in the food world. Here I’ll do my best to give you a sense for it.

Most of us — outside the tropics — think of coconut in terms of bagged shreds. Sure we pick them up sometimes, mostly to make cakes or cookies. However in reality shredded coconut represents only a small fraction of the coconut we all consume every year. Most of the coconut we eat actually comes in the form of coconut oil, which is, and always has been, the most widely used part of the coconut.

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Poly-Unsaturated Snake Oil

Reader Lori writes:

I’m so old that I can remember all the way back to about 2010 when coconut oil was supposed to be about the worst possible thing for you. Can you explain what changed?

Hey Lori! You’re not the first to remark on that. If I were to try to boil it down to any one thing, I’d say it was the Women’s Health Initiative, a massive 2006 study on dietary fat that wrecked the lives of food killjoys everywhere by proving that there was little if any connection between fat consumption and disease.

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Now me, I see a sloth.

What does that say about my personality? Portuguese sailors, when they stared at these germination pores, saw either a monkey or a sort of hobgoblin, depending on who you listen to, which is why they called it “coco”. The Sanskrit word for coconut, so I’m told, is kalpa vriksha, which roughly translates to “everything you need in life”, which is pretty much true. The nut alone provides food, drink, cooking fat, fuel to cook with (shells and husks), and serving bowls. Coconut trees can be used for house construction, thatch from the leaves can be used for roofing, fibers for mats, rope, brooms, brushes and baskets. Those are some seriously handy trees.

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Coco Loco

The coconut isn’t actually a nut, but the stone from a type of fruit known as a drupe. Collectively, we eat a lot of drupes. Nectarines, mangoes and olives spring to mind. Yet the coconut is one of only a very few that has seeds more desirable than its fruit. Not that eating those seeds is a particularly easy to do. You usually need either a saw, a power drill or a machete to break into them. 

The toughness of coconuts is what’s thought to be behind the tree’s remarkable success in the tropics, especially among the islands in the South Pacific. Highly tolerant of salt water, the coconut tree’s shallow roots are perfectly adapted to beach sand. Combine those adaptations with high productivity and a fruit that floats like a football, and you have one of nature’s most effective seed dispersal machines. Fruit that drops off a tree and gets carried out by a tide can float for months and still take root when it washes up on a distant beach. Caribbean coconuts have been found as far away as Norway, still capable of germinating. 

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