Why This Recipe Works
- Using a mixture of whole milk and full-fat coconut milk creates a luscious custard filling that’s full of coconut flavor.
- A combination of cornstarch and egg yolks helps to thicken the custard filling.
- Bringing the filling to a bubble deactivates the natural enzyme amylase found in yolks, ensuring it doesn't turn the custard into a soupy mess.
When asked to choose between pie or cake, my answer is unequivocally pie. Though my favorite ones almost always feature ripe summer fruit, I do have a soft spot for coconut cream pie. Filled with a rich custard and topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream and a sprinkling of toasted flaked coconut, each bite is fragrant, nutty, and a delight to eat. It’s a simple pie to make, too—with a blind-baked crust at the ready, all you have to do is whisk together a custard filling, scrape it into your crust, and allow it to chill until it’s set before you top it with whipped cream and toasted coconut.
Though it’s difficult to trace the exact origins of coconut cream pie, there are recipes from the 19th century, like the “cocoa-nut cream” in Mary Randolph’s 1824 book The Virginia Housewife and the “cocoa-nut pudding” in Eliza Leslie’s 1828 book Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, two creamy coconut confections that could have paved the way for what we now know as coconut cream pie. Perhaps the earliest iteration of an actual coconut pie is the “cocoa-nut pie” found in the 1843 book Mrs. Ellis’s Housekeeping Made Easy, which asks its readers to painstakingly grate their own fresh coconut for the dessert.
Because of the labor involved, coconut desserts likely didn’t become popular in the United States until desiccated coconut became widely available. In her book BraveTart, Serious Eats' own Stella Parks writes at length about a man named Franklin Baker who, with his son Frank Jr., decided to desiccate coconut for resale at the turn of the twentieth century. The “venture was such a rousing success,” she notes, “that they abandoned their previous careers to enter the ‘cocoanut trade’ together.” When the 1920s rolled around, the Bakers began to advertise their coconut products with a recipe for a meringue-topped coconut cream pie—a dessert that, according to Stella, was “the cat’s meow” throughout the Roaring Twenties. Somewhere along the way, whipped cream eventually replaced the meringue.
The Best Dairy to Use for Coconut Cream Pie
Unlike many of the coconut cream pie recipes today, which call for making the custard with some combination of dairy—usually milk, heavy cream, half-and-half, or evaporated milk—the Bakers’ pie used coconut milk exclusively for a more pronounced coconut flavor. For my coconut cream pie, I wanted a filling that was luscious and had a clear coconut flavor without being overly rich or sweet. I tested several custards: one made entirely with coconut milk, one made with a combination of coconut milk and whole milk, and another with coconut milk and half-and-half.
While the custard made with just coconut milk tasted the most, well, coconutty, it was also the most one-dimensional of the three. The combination of coconut milk and half-and-half was delicious, but wasn’t exponentially more flavorful than the custard made with coconut milk and whole milk. Because coconut milk’s natural fats already make it so rich, I didn’t test with heavy cream, especially since I felt that the coconut milk and half-and-half mixture already verged on being just a bit too creamy. The best custard was the combination of coconut milk with whole milk, which produced a filling that had a prominent but balanced coconut flavor and perfectly silky texture.
Making and Thickening the Custard
The custard filling is, essentially, a pastry cream: You combine your dairy (here, a mixture of whole milk and full-fat coconut milk) with sugar, salt, eggs, and starch, and cook it over the stovetop until fully thickened. As Kristina Razon wrote in her crème patissiere recipe, the success of your pastry cream will depend on whether you sufficiently heat your custard base, which relies on starch and eggs as its thickeners. Heat jumpstarts the process of gelatinization; when heated to 175ºF (79ºC), the starch molecules begin to swell and the egg proteins begin to coagulate, thickening the pastry cream.
Now, you might think that heating the custard to 175ºF would be enough to thicken the pastry cream. But yolks contain an enzyme called amylase, which can dissolve starch molecules over time and liquify your custard. “The solution to this problem,” wrote Kristina, “requires getting the pastry cream even hotter—to what we might describe as a ‘bubble,’ with the mixture at a temperature just shy of boiling. Holding the pastry cream at a bubble while whisking constantly for a minute or so deactivates the amylase so that it’s no longer a threat to the structure of the custard.” If you’ve ever made pastry cream and chilled it—only to return to a soupy mess in the fridge—it’s likely you didn’t cook it long enough and amylase got the best of you and your custard.
To beat amylase at its own game, we’re going to bring our coconut custard base to a bubble and whisk it constantly for a full minute to deactivate it. It may be tempting to walk away, but whisking is essential for a smooth pastry cream, and the minute you stop whisking, you risk scorching your pastry cream. Toasted coconut is nice, but nobody wants coconut cream pie that tastes burned.
Sweetened vs. Unsweetened Shredded Coconut
There’s a reason why most coconut cream pie recipes call for sweetened shredded coconut mixed into the custard: it’s exponentially more flavorful than unsweetened coconut. As someone who fears way-too-sweet desserts, though, I was curious to see if using unsweetened coconut in the filling would help temper some of the pie’s sweetness.
Tasting the two fillings side-by-side, the custard with the sweetened coconut had a much more pronounced tropical, nutty flavor, while the filling with the unsweetened coconut was flat. Even when I retested by increasing the amount of sugar in the custard, it still felt lacking. For a balanced and flavorful filling, I used sweetened shredded coconut, seasoned the custard generously with salt, and was mindful of the amount of sugar I incorporated in order to control its overall sweetness.
The Best Crust to Use for Coconut Cream Pie
Because the pie doesn’t require additional baking after you’ve filled the crust with custard, it’s essential to use a blind-baked pie crust. Here, I’ve opted for Stella’s buttery, flaky pie crust, which gets its tenderness from a 1:1 ratio of butter to flour and, because it’s made with all-purpose flour, has just enough gluten to hold its shape in the oven as it bakes. For more tips on blind-baking, follow Stella’s tips and instructions here.
Assembling and Chilling the Pie
With your filling made, the rest is, shall I say… easy as pie? After the custard has cooled over an ice bath for 30 minutes, you’ll scrape it into your blind-baked crust, press plastic wrap over the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate the pie until set. If you’d like to make the pie ahead of time, you can prepare it up until this point and keep it refrigerated for up to three days. All that’s left to do is to top your dessert with whipped cream and toasted coconut flakes when you’re ready to serve.
Coconut Cream Pie
Filled with a rich custard and topped with whipped cream and toasted flaked coconut, this coconut cream pie is fragrant, nutty, and a delight to eat.
- 1/4 cup cornstarch (1 ounce; 28g)
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar (2.5 ounces; 70g)
- 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- 4 large egg yolks (2 ounces; 56g)
- One 13.5-ounce (380g) can coconut milk
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk (296ml)
- 2 cups sweetened shredded coconut (6 ounces; 170g)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 recipe Buttery, Flaky Pie Crust, blind-baked per instructions
- 1 recipe whipped cream, for topping
- 1 cup flaked coconut (1.7 ounces; 50g), for topping
In a medium heat-proof bowl, stir together cornstarch, granulated sugar, and salt. Whisk in egg yolks until smooth.
In a large bowl, set up an ice bath by partially filling it with a combination of cold water and ice. Set aside.
In a 2-quart saucier or saucepan, combine coconut milk, whole milk, and vanilla extract. Set over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and, while whisking constantly, slowly pour milk into egg yolk mixture in a thin stream until all of it has been added.
Return the mixture to the same saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the custard begins to thicken, about 4 minutes. Once it thickens, continue to whisk, pausing every few seconds to check for bubbles, about 1 minute. When it begins to bubble, set a timer and continue whisking for 1 minute.
Remove from heat, then strain the custard through a fine-mesh strainer set over a heatproof medium bowl. Fold in sweetened shredded coconut and immediately place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard. Transfer bowl to prepared ice bath to chill for 30 minutes, then scrape the custard into the prepared blind-baked pie crust. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.
30 minutes before you plan to serve the pie, adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Spread flaked coconut on a rimmed baking sheet and toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven and allow coconut to cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
When ready to serve, top pie with whipped cream and garnish with toasted flaked coconut.
2 medium heat-proof bowls, 2-quart saucier or saucepan, whisk, fine-mesh strainer, rimmed baking sheet
Make-Ahead and Storage
The pie crust can be made and filled with custard up to three days in advance; top with whipped cream and toasted flaked coconut just before serving.