My friend Karin makes the best Easter dinner on record. We’ve been friends since high school and have continued to live relatively close together, so I’ve been lucky enough to sit at her Sunday table many times. The menu has changed through the years, but I have distinct memories of fresh rolls, roasted asparagus, rice pilaf with peas and Parmesan, and peach pie. Everything is homemade and she’s a fantastic cook, so every bite is delightful. As you know, another Easter is on its way, so I was thinking about what I would make if I was hosting the holiday meal myself. Embarrassingly, I came up with only one idea: ambrosia salad.
Yes, I know, it’s usually made with fruit cocktail coated in sickeningly sweet whipped cream (or whipped topping). And sour cream sometimes shows up in the mix. But it’s technically a fruit salad, so starting with that as the base, I thought it could be made better. I admit, I still enjoy sickeningly sweet white fluffy treats when the mood strikes, but I tried to improve on the ingredients a bit and also make it dairy-free so I could feel a little better about eating a whole yummy cup of it this weekend. (Truth be told, I tested the recipe several times, so I’ve already eaten a whole lotta cups of it.) I opted for mostly fresh or unsweetened fruit and tried to reduce the sugar overall, but because the recipe uses coconut and coconut milk the saturated fat is still pretty high.
I was inspired to revamp this favorite salad when I saw instructions for making whipped cream from canned coconut milk on the Happy Healthy Life and Oh She Glows blogs. It’s pretty clever, actually, and it gives real whipped cream a run for its money. There’s one other ingredient that needs a substitution to make the salad vegan, too, and that’s the marshmallows. There are a couple of different brands of vegan marshmallows, but my local co-op had Dandies. If you can find the minis, use them to save yourself the time and effort and stickiness of cutting up the larger ones. But either size is delicious.
There are so many ways to make this salad your own by switching up the ingredients. I tried several variations, so be sure to read the notes after the recipe for suggestions and tips.
- 1 cup red or green seedless grapes
- 1 cup mandarin orange segments (from 3 to 4 fresh mandarin, satsuma or clementine oranges, peeled and segmented; or one 15-oz. can of mandarin oranges, drained)
- 1 cup canned red tart cherries in water, drained
- 1¼ cups fresh pineapple, chopped (about ¼ of a pineapple)
- 1 cup large flake unsweetened coconut
- 1 cup vegan mini marshmallows, or regular-sized vegan marshmallows cut into sixths (it takes about 10 regular-sized mallows to make 1 cup once they're cut up)
- 13.5-fluid ounce can full fat coconut milk, refrigerated (you'll only be using the solid part that separates out when it's chilled)
- 6 tablespoons powdered sugar
- Seeds from 1 scraped vanilla bean or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- Put a medium-sized mixing bowl in the freezer to chill for 5 minutes.
- In a large bowl, combine grapes, orange segments, cherries, pineapple, coconut and marshmallows. If you're cutting up the larger marshmallows, kitchen shears work great. I cut the mallows directly over the bowl of fruit and stir them in after each few. This helps coat the pieces in fruit juice and reduce the stick-to-each-other factor. I also washed the shears halfway through the process which made for easier and less sticky cutting.
- Remove chilled bowl from the freezer. Turn the can of coconut milk upside down and open from the bottom. Carefully pour off the cloudy liquid and set aside. Spoon the thick white solid stuff that's left behind into your chilled bowl. Using a hand mixer, beat for about 1 minute. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and continue mixing for another 2 minutes until it increases in volume and looks "whipped". (Since you're starting with a fairly small volume, I had better luck using a hand mixer and a high-sided bowl than the wire whip attachment on my stand mixer.)
- Gently fold the whipped coconut cream into the fruit mixture. Chill for 1 hour.
A few notes on ingredient selection:
Orange segments: I tested the recipe with fresh and canned orange segments and was happy with both options. But there is a difference in moisture, so the result will be a more “dry” salad with the fresh and a bit more “wet” with the canned.
Cherries: I’ve made a similar version of this salad in the summer and used fresh cherries. The texture and flavor are perfect. If cherries are in season, there’s just nothing better.
Pineapple: I used fresh, but of course you could substitute canned pineapple tidbits or chunks, drained.
Coconut: In an effort to reduce the sugar, I used unsweetened coconut. But the widely available sweetened shredded would work too. And, I love the texture that the large coconut flakes from Bob’s Red Mill add to the salad, if you can find them.
Marshmallows: Dandies Vegan Marshmallows makes the standard size and the minis. I could only find the larger ones locally, and it worked just fine to cut them into smaller pieces. But, if you can find the minis, it will save you time and sticky scissors. The other brand I like is Sweet and Sara.
Coconut milk: There is quite a difference in the amount and consistency of the coconut cream you’ll find in cans of coconut milk. I was happiest with A Taste of Thai because there was more to work with and it whipped up soft and fluffy. I also tested Thai Kitchen, but it made much less and the result was denser which made for a somewhat thicker ambrosia salad. The two bloggers who introduced me to the idea of whipped coconut cream in the first place used Native Forest brand.
Powdered sugar: For this salad to be truly vegan, you’d want to be sure to use powdered sugar not filtered with bone char. You can find acceptable brands in this article from the Vegetarian Resource Group.
Well, I’m pretty sure I can’t serve an Easter dinner with just one dish, so I’d better get cracking on the rest of my menu planning. I bet Karin’s doing the same right about now…
Have you succeeded in vegetarianizing or veganizing a favorite Easter dish of your own? How close did you get to imitating the original?