Why are there no classic grapefruit desserts? We love orange souffle, Key lime pie, and lemon bars (and cookies, cake, tart, curd, pudding, ice cream), but the only grapefruit dessert that springs to mind is grapefruit sorbet. Which doesn’t count. Sorbet is extremely cold juice, and however delicious, it is not really dessert.
Is the dearth of grapefruit desserts because people associate the fruit with misery and dieting, not pleasure and indulgence? Or is there something in the nature of a grapefruit that doesn’t lend itself to dessert?
I decided to try grapefruit in different dessert formats. Here with the results:
Cookies. By substituting grapefruit (zest and juice) for lemon in a basic Martha Stewart recipe, I ended up with a tasty cookie that made peoples’ mouths tingle and tasted like Fresca. In a good way! But while all the cookies were eaten, no one begged me to bake them again.
Tart. I made a free-form tart shell, slathered it with marmalade, and placed big rounds of peeled grapefruit on top. It was gorgeous, and the grapefruit rings looked like the inner workings of a clock, but the marmalade brought out the bitterness of the fruit and baking made it stringy.
Cake. According to Hollywood legend, gossip columnist Louella Parsons once asked Robert Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant, to invent for her a diet dessert. His solution: the Brown Derby grapefruit cake, which is not a diet dessert but a frosted layer cake flavored and garnished with grapefruit. (He also invented the Cobb salad, which is not a diet salad.) The recipe was a closely held secret for many years, but Joanne Woodward, actress and luckiest woman in the world, came close to cracking the code. I made Woodward’s version of the classic and it was one of the prettiest cakes that has ever come out of my kitchen. There’s grapefruit in the cake and grapefruit in the icing and it was well liked, if not adored. I wouldn’t make it again, though. A dessert celebrating grapefruit — an exuberantly wet fruit — should not be dry, and cake is, by definition, dry.
Mousse. On the other hand, mousse is, by definition, never dry. Maida Heatter’s grapefruit mousse was soft and airy and the pale pink of homemade strawberry ice cream. I thought this was a winner, but my husband pushed his dish away and said, “No.” My sister-in-law Laura identified the problem. Heatter calls for pureeing the fruit and the joy of a grapefruit is, to quote Laura, its “bursting juiciness.” The flavor of a grapefruit lovely, but it’s the sudden flood — the burst — of sweet-tart juice that makes eating a grapefruit so unique and pleasurable.
How do you capture “bursting juiciness” in a dessert? You make a grapefruit and coconut angel pie.
Pie. This recipe first appeared in Gourmet magazine in 1992 and was reprinted in the 2004 Gourmet Cookbook. The headnote reads: “When we considered omitting this pie from the book, we heard cries of outrage from its many fans on our staff. It may sound strange, but once you’ve tried it you will bake again and again.”
Yes, you will. A sticky-crunchy coconut meringue contains a cloud of sweet, pink citrus cream full of intact grapefruit morsels that provide the desired “bursting juiciness.” I wish this recipe didn’t call for quite so many utensils and bowls; to make the filling alone, you need 5 mixing bowls, plus a saucepan. But the pie is unusual and bewitching and beautiful and absolutely worth washing a few extra dishes.
Grapefruit and Coconut Angel Pie
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 4 large egg whites
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
- 5 pink or red grapefruits
- 1 packet gelatin
- 4 large egg yolks
- ½ cup sugar
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 250°F. Brush a 10-inch pie plate with some of the melted butter, making sure to coat the rim of the pie plate. Place the plate in the refrigerator for 3 minutes or until the butter hardens. Brush with the remaining butter.
Beat the egg whites with the salt until foamy, then add the cream of tartar and beat until the whites hold soft peaks. Gradually add the sugar, beating until the meringue holds stiff, shiny peaks, about 7 minutes. Fold in the coconut.
Spread the meringue in the prepared pie plate to form a shell. Bake for 1¼ hours, until firm. Turn off the oven and leave the pie shell to dry there for 2 more hours.
Slice the bottom off the grapefruit to just barely expose the flesh; you should be able to set it flat on a cutting board and it will stand on its own. Flip over and slice off the other end of the fruit. Working from the top, with a very sharp knife, remove the peel and the pith from the fruit, exposing the flesh. When the fruit is peeled, remove the segments, slicing as close to the membranes as possible. Cut the segments into 1/2 inch chunks. Place in a sieve over a bowl to drain and reserve the juices.
Sprinkle gelatin over ¼ cup reserved grapefruit juice to soften for one minute.
Whisk together the yolks and sugar in a saucepan, then add the gelatin and remaining grapefruit juice. Cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. It will not form a custard. If you have a candy thermometer, the mixture should register 160°F.
Pour the mixture into a clean bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes, until, as the original recipe puts it the mixture is the “consistency of raw egg whites, but not set.” Remove from the bowl of ice water, but don’t get rid of the ice water.
Beat the cream cheese until fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the yolk mixture a little at a time until smooth and fluffy. Place the mixing bowl in the reserved bowl of ice water and beat until the mixture is thick, about 3 minutes.
In another bowl, with a clean beater, whip the heavy cream until it holds stiff peaks. Whisk a scoop of the whipped cream into the cheese mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whipped cream. Fold in the grapefruit segments.
Pour filling into the shell. It will be wobbly. Put the pie in the refrigerator for 3 hours to set. Serve as soon after that as possible.