This simple bowl of fruit has earned an important place at the Southern holiday table.

| Credit: Beth Dreiling; Styling Cari South; food styling Rebecca Kracke Gordon

Fruit Salad Recipes:

Often nestled among a host of traditional Christmas dishes on the Southern sideboard is a big crystal bowl of ambrosia. This "food of the gods" in its purest form is simplicity itself--fresh oranges layered with flakes of coconut.

"People who add grapefruit, pineapple, grapes, and bananas, and Lord knows what else to ambrosia simply don't understand ambrosia," proclaims Martha Pearl Villas in My Mother's Southern Desserts (Morrow Cookbooks, $27) written by her son, James. Her recipe has just four ingredients: oranges, coconut, sugar, and orange juice. Log on to a recipe chat room though, and you'll find that people include all sorts of ingredients. In our Test Kitchens, while indulging in various bowls of goodness, the purist-orange-coconut coalition looked on in disbelief at the pro-pineapple-ites and the grapefruit groupies. Finally, we were all content with this one and the shortcut version.

The be-all and end-all of ambrosia is that it is what you want it to be. Personalizing it with whipped cream, pistachios, marshmallows, dried cranberries, or bright red maraschino cherries doesn't make it wrong--it makes it yours.

Freshly Grated Coconut
Try our heat-and-crack method for getting the meat out of the shell.

  1. Pierce soft areas at the top of coconut (the eyes) with an ice pick or clean screwdriver. Drain the milk.
  2. 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.
  3. Remove brown skin with a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Grate coconut--you'll have 2 1/2 to 3 cups of coconut. Test Kitchens professional Rebecca Kracke Gordon recommends using a Y-shaped peeler and hand grating with a microplane grater (available at most kitchen shops) or the fine side of a box grater.