For the last several weeks of school, my brain was too full to tackle anything more difficult than pasta or chocolate chip cookies. I was writing final papers, getting forms signed, running interference between my department and the graduate office, and heading to campus for last-minute meetings and assignments. There was plenty of stress eating, but not much real cooking or baking. Things were so crazy that I nearly let Mother’s Day slip past me.

Luckily, I caught it in time to ask my own mother what she would like for Mother’s Day, and had the foresight to suggest we celebrate in person a week late, when she would be in town to see me graduate, rather than celebrate by mail. My sister and I coordinated to get her some gifts, but she also asked that I bake her something. She asked that I bake her a coconut cream pie.

My mom is the one who most frequently asks me to bake for her. It started when I was little; she would let me help when she made no-bake cookies, those little delights of chocolate, oats, and peanut butter you mix in a pan and drop onto wax paper on the counter. I’ve made those cookies as an adult, but somehow they lose their magic if Mom isn’t eating one too soon, when it hasn’t set and is still warm and gooey.

When I got older, Mom would buy cake and brownie mixes and talk my sister and I into baking a pan of brownies, or a pan of yellow cake with canned chocolate frosting. Sometimes we’d get refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough, which may or may not have made it all the way through the baking process before being consumed. Our pantry was usually stocked with a variety of muffin mixes; many a Saturday morning started with my sister and I baking muffins for mom. Mom would always rather be the baked-for, rather than the baker. If you know her, you know this suits her personality quite well.

Although I still consider myself a novice baker (this was my first cream pie, after all, and I wasn’t at all sure how to tell if it would set correctly, thicken up right, or come out edible), I got an early start at my mother’s side, as she showed me how to use a measuring cup, how to crack an egg without getting shell in the batter, and let me in on that all-important secret: the best way to clean a bowl is to lick it. I think I may have mentioned this before, but I’m pretty sure it was my mom who told me that if you can read, you can cook. Even complex recipes are simple if you follow the directions.

This is one of the more complex recipes I’ve ever followed. There’s a lot to do, and in a certain order. My sister was with me, so I was trying to explain the process along the way to a young woman who was incredibly dubious of both of our abilities on this front. Still, sharing the kitchen with my little sister to make our mother a pie was a special, if hilarious, experience. My sister raised her eyebrows when I brought out the food processor, jumped at the noise when I pulsed the animal crackers, and generally was awesome as sous chef while our mom laughed at us and read a book in the next room. We both looked at the coconut milk with some concern until a friend nearby assured us that is really is supposed to look that way. Sister was utterly nonplussed with having to wait between steps, and then having to wait three to four hours before we could eat the pie.

This pie was very tasty and not all that difficult to make, although it is somewhat complicated. It has a strong coconut flavor and is guaranteed to please the coconut-lover in your group. A word to the wise: if you are a texture eater (as I am), you should strain out the coconut flakes before you add the milk-coconut milk mixture to the egg mixture. I found the coconut flakes in the pie itself to be off-putting, but no one else minded. It’s a texture thing. The texture people among me will understand.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Coconut Cream Pie
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

Crust
6 ounces animal crackers
2 tbsp. sweetened shredded coconut
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
4 tbsp. butter, melted and cooled

Filling
1 14-ounce can whole coconut milk
1 c. whole milk
1/2 c. sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
1/4 tbsp. salt
5 large egg yolks
1/4 c. cornstarch
2 tbsp. butter, cut into two pieces
1 tsp. vanilla

Whipped Cream
1 1/2 c. cold heavy cream
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla

For crust: Preheat oven to 325. Combine animal crackers, coconut, and sugar in a food processor and pulse in one-second pulses until crumby. Then process for 5-15 seconds until fine.

Combine crumbs with melted butter in a bowl until mixture looks uniform. Press into bottom of a 9″ pie plate (I used a 9.5″ pie plate, because that’s the pie plate I have and that’s the kind of girl I am) with the bottom of a ramekin or flat-bottomed cup.

Place pie in lower third of oven and bake ~15 minutes, rotating halfway through baking time, until crust is medium brown. Set pie pan on a wire rack and cool at least 30 minutes.

For filling: Combine milk, coconut milk, 1/2 c. sugar, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.

In a separate bowl, whisk yolks, cornstarch, and 1 tsbp. sugar until fully combined. Add milk mixture to egg mixture a little at a time, whisking constantly (this is tempering the eggs, so they don’t scramble); you should add the milk mixture in 4-5 batches. [This is the part where, if you are a texture person, you would strain out the coconut before you add the milk mixture to the egg mixture.]

Return mixture to saucepan and cook until boiling. Allow to boil, stirring, for one minute, so mixture can thicken.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter until butter is completely absorbed. Pour into the pie shell and smooth the surface with a rubber spatula. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap onto the surface of the filling, and chill in the fridge for at least three hours.

For whipped cream: Just before serving, combine heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla in a bowl. With a hand mixer, beat on medium or high until soft peaks forms, about 3-4 minutes.

Spread onto pie, attempting to make a pretty design.

Slice and serve. Keeps in fridge, covered, for several days, or until your boyfriend finishes it.

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