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A coconut bar is a culinary treat made for generations throughout Asia and the Polynesian islands. The traditional recipe is epitomized by a dim sum dessert that blends coconut milk, sugar and perhaps some grated coconut. To finalize the candy, a setting agent is used that yields either a creamy, block-like texture if corn starch and flour is used, or one that is more like Jell-O®, if agar agar and gelatin are preferred. Over time and many cultural interpretations, the coconut bar has taken on many other ingredients, from chocolate, egg and almonds to butter, salt and even fresh grated corn.
A customary coconut bar starts by sweetening coconut milk. For a true densely packed bar, corn starch and rice or wheat flour is mixed with the milk, and perhaps some water, to create a dough that is poured into a baking pan for cooling and cutting into squares. Some flatten the dough into patties and sear them on a skillet or bake them in the oven — for about 20 minutes at 400°F (about 200°C). Other iterations include those that add agar agar and gelatin instead of the flours, with the mixture poured into a mold to harden like springy Jell-O®.
This dessert goes by several names. In Hawaii, locals call this treat haupia — a custard-like blend of just coconut milk, water, sugar and cornstarch that is blended and set to cool. For those in the Philippines, it is a gelatin called maja blanca, with the addition of grated corn kernels and the gelatin stand-in agar agar. The Thai version, known as kanom ba bin, uses two types of rice flour, sugar, salt, water, coconut milk and grated coconut.
Many in the west have been introduced to the classic coconut bar at an Asian buffet or Polynesian luau. Others have been slowly assimilated by more complex versions of the recipe. This might have been the iconic Almond Joy® candy bar recipe, with an almond-topped coconut cream that is dipped in milk chocolate. It may also have been a chewy baked coconut bar loaded down with not just the standard coconut and coconut milk, but also ingredients like brown sugar, salt, vanilla, chocolate chips, nuts, flour and egg.
Coconut can be prepared, to great culinary effect, in a variety of dishes both savory and sweet. A close cousin to the coconut bar is a coconut ganache, which is widely considered a gourmet delight. This is made by laying down a layer of chocolate, then boiling cream, sugar and coconut milk for the top layer. The whole nugget is then brushed with coconut rum and dusted in toasted coconut. Occasionally, a chef may finish off these treats with a quick sear from a hand-held torch.
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