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Lifestyle :: Food :: Kau Kau Kitchen :: Haupia - The Secret Is Slow Cooking and Constant Stirring

Haupia - The Secret Is Slow Cooking and Constant Stirring

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coconut trees 
Coconut trees in Hilo, Hawaii

I love coconuts, the tall graceful trees that epitomize the tropics and Polynesian living. Niu, coconut, provided many of the necessities of life for the Hawaiians of ancient times, and while today we can survive without it, who would want to? The tree was valued so highly that the Polynesian explorers carried it with them and planted it everywhere they landed. Food and drink, lumber and roofing, and rope to tie it with, baskets and bandages. All came from the niu.

In one story the coconut, Niu-ola-Hiki, "Life-Giving-Coconut," is the ancestor of Hina, and thus, all Hawaiians who are descended from her.

The coconut was so valued that the tree was considered a noble man, diligently providing for his human family. If someone needed to cut a niu, one or two others must be planted to replace it. To cut down another chief's coconut trees was to declare war.

I love the history, legends, beauty, usefulness, and taste of the coconut.

One of my favorite things to take for pot lucks is haupia. This classic lu`au dessert can be made a day or two ahead, and even if you dump the container in the car, the mess is pretty easy to clean up. And most people really like it.

Some people seem very intimidated by haupia, thinking it is difficult to make. It's not difficult. You just need to relax and take your time. But isn't that part of what living in Hawai`i is about?

I like to use pure coconut milk, no added preservatives, which to me give a metallic taste. You can either make your own coconut milk, or buy it frozen at the grocer.

If coconut milk or coconuts are just not available where you live, you can make a version of haupia using the grated dried coconut found in the baking section of your grocer's.

Stages of maturity of the coconut

Coconut Milk - Fresh, 2-4 cups
hot water

To make fresh coconut milk, harvest or purchase two mature coconuts. Husk if needed. Holding the coconut with the eyes up, use the back of a heavy knife, machete, or cane knife, to strike the coconut firmly crosswise to the fibers and about 1/3 of the way down from the eyes. A dexterous person can do this without spilling much of the coconut water, which can be reserved and drunk as a beverage.

Some people pierce the coconut eyes and insert a straw or pour the juice out before cracking. I was taught that traditionally girls and women, and men with pregnant wives, should never pierce the eye of a coconut as their babies might be born blind.

The easiest way to grate coconut is with a tool made for the purpose.

coconut grater
My Grandparents' coconut grater, ready to go!

Place the grater on a chair and sit down with the serrated blade sticking out between your legs. Have a large bowl under the grater. Take a coconut half-shell in both hands and place it over the grater tip, rotating the shell up and down while applying even pressure. You will soon see coconut milk dripping down, and shredded coconut falling in to the bowl. Give the coconut a turn left or right every few scrapes so that you wear it down evenly. Avoid scraping into the brown part, which can sometimes be bitter.

If you do not have a coconut grater, place the cracked coconuts in the oven at about 35 degrees for a few minutes. The meat should release from the shell. Pare off the brown part and grate on a standard kitchen grater, or run through a food processor.

Line a colander with cheesecloth and fill with your grated coconut. Place the colander over a medium or large pot. Pour two cups hot water over the coconut, making sure all of the water runs through the coconut, not over it and off the edges. Draw together the edges of the cheesecloth and squeeze it out to extract as much coconut milk as possible. Be careful not to get burned.

If you do not yet have two cups, repeat the process with more hot water. The more water you add, the less rich the milk will be.

These days, due to other demands on my time, I mostly use the frozen coconut milk. I like it because it still tastes good, and the product is much more consistent.

Dried Coconut Milk
Per cup of milk desired:

1 bag dried grated coconut
1 cup boiling water

Place coconut in a roomy saucepan. Add water and simmer for about five minutes. Line a colander with cheesecloth and place over a large bowl. Pour in the coconut mix. Allow to cool. When cool, draw together the cheesecloth and squeeze to extract as much coconut milk as possible. Add more hot water to make 1 cup per bag.

Now for the haupia:

Haupia from Fresh or Dried Coconut
3 cups fresh coconut milk or dried coconut milk
1 cup water
6 tablespoons white sugar
6 tablespoons cornstarch
9" square cake pan or baking dish
la`i (ti leaves), cut into 2"X2" squares

Mix together the water, sugar, and cornstarch. Stirring constantly, slowly bring the temperature up to just below simmering. Now slowly add the coconut milk while stirring constantly. Now keep stirring. And stir some more. Don't stop! Stir both directions, and be sure to incorporate everything that tends to collect along the sides. After what seems like several hours - maybe 10 or 15 minutes? - the gloss of the haupia will change. Instead of the original somewhat chalky white, it will have a lovely sheen and creaminess. The whisk or spoon you are using will start leaving tracks, and gentle hills and valleys will form as you stir. Stir it a bit more, but take care not to burn the haupia.

Pour the hot haupia into the cake pan or baking dish and set in the refrigerator to cool. You can leave it out to cool, but it will take longer.

When the haupia has set, cut it into 1" squares and set on the bits of la`i.


Haupia from Frozen Coconut Milk
1 12oz can frozen coconut milk
water - fill empty coconut milk can to measure
4 tablespoons white sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
9" square cake pan or baking dish
la`i (ti leaves), cut into 2"X2" squares

Follow above instructions.


You can vary the haupia many ways by simply adding things such as dried fruits, fresh berries, a bit of almond or vanilla flavoring, or serving it in a ready-made pie crust, rather than as squares.

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