Since the last two weeks’ dishes have been meat-based, I decided when I started hunting for intriguing Honduran recipes this week that, if possible, I was going to make something without meat – a dessert, a side dish, a meatless entree, whatever – just to mix things up a little. I almost reneged on that resolution when I read about one of the national dishes of Honduras:
Carneada is considered one of Honduras’ national dishes, known as Plato Típico when served in Honduran restaurants. While it is a type of dish, a Carneada or Carne Asada, like its Mexican counterpart, is usually more of a social event with drinks and music centered around a feast of barbecued meat. The cuts of beef are usually marinated in sour orange juice, salt, pepper and spices, and then grilled.
The meat is usually accompanied by chismol salsa (made of chopped tomatoes, onion and cilantro with lemon and spices), roasted plátanos (sweet plantains), spicy chorizos, olanchano cheese, tortillas,and refried mashed beans.
Citrus-marinated beef with fresh salsa and roasted plantains? NOM. But no! I had decided to do something different, and something different is what I would do, by gosh. (I would, however, bookmark recipes for carneada and chismol, because, again, NOM.)
So I started reading about Honduran desserts and side dishes – and here I encountered a new problem. Several times in a row, I found a reference to things that sounded delicious, but then when I would go look up recipes for those delicious-sounding things, I would find precisely zero of them in English. I know only bits and pieces of Spanish, so unless those recipes consisted entirely of the numbers from one to ten, basic words like hello, goodbye, please, and thank you, or the lyrics to nonsensical Renaissance drinking songs that aren’t even exactly in Spanish, I wasn’t going to be able to make much sense of them. (I did run a few of them through Google Translate, but the results tended to be about as coherent as that song I just mentioned.) Now, obviously, I could have recruited a Spanish-speaking friend, but before I gave up and started poking people on Facebook for translation help, my search for interesting recipes in English finally bore fruit. Big, round, hard, tropical fruit, to be precise.
I actually found the first reference to “pan de coco” on a list of Honduran desserts, but as soon as I went looking for more information on it, I discovered that it had been misclassified. Pan de coco (that is, coconut bread) is apparently featured in the cuisine of two countries – Honduras and the Philippines. The Honduran version, which is mostly made by the Garifuna people who live along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, is (at least according to the sources I saw) the “original” pan de coco. When that recipe made its way to the Philippines, it was turned into a sweet roll with a sugary coconut filling, but Honduran pan de coco is genuinely a bread, not a cake or a pastry, and is more like a dinner roll. I like bread, I like coconut, and while I wasn’t sure how those two things would work together, I was intrigued. (I also think the Filipino version sounds pretty yummy, so it’s now in the same bookmark folder as that carneada recipe. One of the cool things about this project is that it keeps giving me tasty ideas for additional foods to make in between dishes-of-the-week!)
So, as always, I began by gathering my ingredients:
Part of why I was a little excited to try this dish is that every other time I have cooked with coconut, I’ve been making a dessert, and so buying sweetened shredded coconut worked just fine. Because this dish wasn’t going to be sweet, I had an opportunity to try something new: opening a real, flesh-and-watery-filling coconut. I read all about various coconut-opening methods online, and felt pretty confident that between all the different options presented, I would be able to crack that sucker, no problem.
Well, as it turns out, coconuts are jerks.
I started out well – I poked a hole in the “soft” eye of the coconut and drained out the coconut water without too much trouble. Then I moved on to the “tap around the ‘equator’ of the coconut with the back of a big knife until the coconut cracks open in two nice equal halves” step. I tapped and I tapped and I tapped…and the coconut stayed completely uncracked. So I moved on to the “grip the coconut firmly and thwack it against the edge of a concrete surface until the coconut cracks open in two nice equal halves” method, at which point I learned that the bounce-back of a woody coconut hitting the palm of your hand freaking hurts and sends sharp little coconut splinters into your palm. Nevertheless, I persisted, saying “ow” with each thwack, until eventually…I had a little, tiny crack in my coconut. Sigh. It was time to get more aggressive. Third try: “continue gripping the coconut firmly and holding it against the edge of that concrete surface, but also beat it with a hammer like a crazy person until the coconut cracks open in two nice equal halves.” And at last:
Those were not even close to being two nice equal halves, but whatever, I’d take it. And hey, beating the snot out of a coconut was kind of therapeutic, although I could have done without the splinters.
Getting the coconut flesh out of its shell also turned out to be slower going than I expected, but after a little work (and a lot of singing to myself about where one might put a lime in order to relieve a bellyache), I had a good-sized pile of coconut chunks and shavings that I could pop into the food processor and shred nice and fine.
Now that I had my fresh, shredded, unsweetened coconut, it was time to get cooking!
The process really wasn’t much different than making standard white bread from scratch – first, you mix your yeast, warm water, and sugar in order to activate the yeast, and let that stand for ten minutes or so until it gets nice and frothy. In the meantime, mix together the salt and 3 and 1/2 cups of flour in a big bowl, and make a nice little hollow in the middle of it to pour your yeasty water into once it’s ready. Pour that in, and then add all the other ingredients. Mix with a large spoon or your hands until everything is blended together. You should have a very moist, sticky dough at this point. Start kneading, adding more flour a little at a time as you work, until the dough has lost its stickiness. (It should still be a relatively moist dough, though.) Make a dough ball, coat the inside of a bowl with oil, and chuck your dough ball in there. Cover it up, wait an hour or so, and then this:
…will turn into this:
Now, at this point, I had a decision to make. I could turn my pan de coco into loaves or into large rolls. Authentic Honduran pan de coco seems mostly to take the form of the latter, based on the pictures and descriptions I’d found, but loaves can more easily be made into sandwiches, and I was already thinking about what fillings I’d like to try in a coconut-bread sandwich. Loaves, or rolls? Rolls, or loaves? I couldn’t decide. And so I decided to take some advice from one of the world’s greatest founts of wisdom: internet memes.
That small child from a taco commercial had a good point. One loaf and one set of large rolls it was. I lightly greased their respective pans and divided the dough accordingly.
Once again, I let ’em rise for an hour or so.
Then it was into the oven with ’em at 350° F. The rolls were done after about 20 minutes, while the loaf took about 35 minutes. And then they were ready to eat!
The pan de coco was very soft and tasty, and a little bit denser than typical white bread, but the truth is, it didn’t actually end up tasting very much like coconut, despite all the coconut and coconut milk in it. If no one told you that what you were eating wasn’t standard white bread, I’m not sure you’d figure out what exactly was different about it right away. You would notice that something was different, and that the bread tasted richer than normal bread, but you might not realize what the additional ingredient was until you happened to get a largish coconut shred in one bite and recognized its distinctive texture. So despite being full of tropical fruit, pan de coco mostly just tastes like “good bread with a little something different about it,” and really does work as a dinner roll or a sandwich bread. I especially liked it warm and spread with jam – the coconut flavor seemed to come out more strongly when it was paired with another fruit. I most likely won’t make this one again anytime soon, but only because making bread from scratch takes enough effort that I only tend to do so when I’m especially craving some specific sort of bread, and while I definitely like pan de coco quite a bit (and will happily be chowing down on it for the next couple of days plain, in sandwiches, or spread with more jam or butter), I can’t really see it as something I’m likely to crave more than cinnamon swirl bread or beer-and-cheese bread or any of the other more distinctly flavorful breads I tend to make when I’m in a bread-from-scratch sort of mood.
On the other hand, I might very well make it again at some point, since (unlike either of the two breads I just mentioned) this pan de coco is entirely vegan. As someone who likes to be able to cater to the dietary needs and desires of anyone I might someday be feeding, I appreciate being able to add a new tasty food to the “interesting things I could cook for vegans” list.
I want to revise my opinion of the pan de coco slightly. So, last night, all I had eaten were rolls hot and fresh from the oven. Hot, fresh-baked bread is obviously amazing, but I now actually think this recipe’s moment to shine comes after it’s had time to cool. See, hot bread fresh from the oven always has that yummy yeasty flavor to it, which fades somewhat as it cools down. Well, apparently that yummy yeastiness concealed a lot of yummy coconuttiness, because when I had a slice of the loaf this morning, the coconut flavor was much more obvious. That is very much a good thing – it’s delicious! (And the coconut flavor is still not overwhelming, by any means, but whereas last night I thought a person who knew nothing about the bread would think, “This bread is great, and different in some way I can’t quite put my finger on immediately,” today, I believe they’d think, “This bread is super great and tastes kinda coconutty!”) The loaf has a dense, almost cake-like texture while still being only mildly sweet, so it’d still work wonderfully as a sandwich bread for anything from PB&Js to savory meats. But now that the coconut flavor is so much more apparent, I have a feeling I’m going to be stealing slices off the loaf to snack on so frequently that it may not last long enough for more than one or two sandwiches.
1 package yeast
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup finely shredded coconut
1 cup coconut milk
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp shortening