There are a million and one ways to coconut cream pie. You could do flaky pastry crust or graham cracker crust or any-cracker crust. You could do vanilla pastry cream mixed with shredded coconut or coconut milk pastry cream. You could whip cream or meringue. You could sprinkle shredded coconut or not.
So what makes a coconut cream pie a coconut cream pie?
A few things. You need these three elements: crust, custardy filling, creamy topping. And it’s got to be served cold as heck. And coconut has to be included—somewhere, somehow. Most classically, this means mixed into the filling and sprinkled on top. Which, for me, is never coconutty enough. If you say coconut cream pie, I want coconut cream pie.
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Even the coconuttiest coconut cream pie. I grabbed my compass and set out to find it. The road was long and sometimes treacherous. But there’s a happy ending, I promise. Here’s what happened:
Goals: Not flaky pastry. Crumbly. Very buttery. Coconut but not all coconut like, say, a coconut macaroon. Though, now that I mention it, a coconut macaroon crust sounds pretty cute. But no, not what we’re going for.
Test #1: coconut-oat crumb crust. Pulse unsweetened shredded coconut and oats in a food processor like graham crackers. Add sugar, salt, and melted butter. Result: a greasy puddle. I eat the edges and try to convince myself I like it.
Test #2: coconut shortbread. I start with a basic shortbread—1 cup flour to 1 stick butter, powdered sugar instead of granulated—and add in unsweetened shredded coconut. Looks great. Smells better. Yippee! I don’t grease the pan because I never line or grease sheet pans for shortbread—they’re just so dang buttery. I assemble the whole pie, cut a slice, and can’t get the bugger out of the pan. First slice is always the worst, I tell myself, jimmying the knife here and there, this way and that, and the blade jolts out of the pan and slashes my left palm. But the pie is okay!
Test #3: coconut shortbread, take 2. I admit that Test #2’s shortbread was too tough and difficult to release. New strategy: For its shortbread pie crust, The Joy of Cooking recommends greasing or buttering the pan, then dusting with flour. Just like a cake pan. Brilliant! I nab this trick and it works wonders. I also swap out some of the all-purpose flour for cornstarch to increase tenderness. And it is tender. Very tender. Too tender. Perfect for cookies but not for a crust.
Test #4: coconut shortbread, take 3. I lower the amount of cornstarch and all is well. It releases easily, is sturdy, crumbly, and coconutty.
Goals: Silky as heck. But sturdy enough to be sliceable. Is there such a thing as too much coconut here? Nope. Except I don’t want shredded coconut. This is personal and I’ll understand if you disagree and add some shredded coconut and never tell me about it.
Test #1: like lemon or lime pie. But coconut. Here’s the idea: You know those citrus and sweetened condensed milk fillings that are super thick and rich and custardy? Like Atlantic Beach Pie. What if you lowered the citrus? What if sweetened condensed coconut milk was a thing? Is it? It is, it is! I jump up and down in the Whole Foods baking aisle. I’m going to break the internet, I think, as I drive home. Result: I don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to know. Don’t be like me.
Test #2: coconut milk pastry cream. What if you replaced the milk in pastry cream with coconut milk? And the butter with coconut oil? I’ve replaced some of the milk before but never all. And never tried coconut oil. I use Dorie Greenspan’s recipe as a base because of course. I cook it over too-high heat and it gets eggy. I do a 1:1 swap for butter and it gets greasy. But we’re getting somewhere.
Test #3: coconut milk pastry cream, take 2. Lower the heat. Lower the coconut oil. I vow to never make pastry cream with cow’s milk again. Coconut is my one true love.
Goals: Coconutty but not overpowering. Swooshy but not slouchy. Stable but not dense. Barely sweet.
Test #1: Mostly coconut cream, some heavy cream. Result: too dense. P.S. You can buy coconut cream in teeny cans! Or, you can refrigerate a can of coconut milk and scoop the cream off the top. (But buying teeny cans is easier.)
Test #2: Up the heavy cream, lower the coconut cream, yielding a 1:1 ratio. Huzzah!
The Topping to the Topping
Goals: Toasty. Dramatic. Crunchy.
Test #1: Unsweetened coconut chips, 350° F oven, 5 minutes. They’re perfect! And on the first try! It’s a miracle. Let’s celebrate with pie.
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 am, reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their cat, Butter.