Tembleque is a common Puerto Rican dessert with a wonderful name that refers to its trembling, wiggly texture, like panna cotta or flan mixed with Jell-O. When I would visit Tata as a kid, she often bought tembleque from her favorite bakery in Bayamon. It always came in a round aluminum container with a clear plastic lid, revealing its sprinkled cinnamon topping. I would open it, breathe in the coconut-y cinnamon aroma, and we would sit on her marquesina and eat it out of the container with a spoon. Tembleque has six ingredients, only one of which—orange flower water—is a little obscure. You should be able to find it at your local botánica or stores specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients. It’s not essential, but it adds a signature flavor that’s worth the search.
½ cup cornstarch
⅔ cup sugar (or ½ cup if using canned coconut milk)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange flower water (agua de azahar)
4 cups coconut milk, fresh (recipe following) or canned
Directions: In a large saucepan, combine the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and orange flower water. Slowly whisk in the coconut milk until well incorporated. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until the mixture starts to thicken. Lower the heat to medium and continue stirring until just barely boiling. Remove from the heat and immediately pour into a 9-inch-diameter, 3-inch-deep mold of any shape, using a rubber scraper to get at any tembleque from the sides of the pot (alternatively, pour it into individual molds).
Allow to cool fully, about 1 hour, then cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours. Flip the tembleque onto a plate and sprinkle with cinnamon, or scoop right out of the mold and serve.
Note: I strongly recommend fresh coconut milk (recipe below), but canned works well too, with a slight adjustment on the amount of sugar.
Leche de Coco (Coconut Milk)
It’s a laborious process, an experiment for over the weekend, maybe with a few friends in the mix. But trust me, fresh coconut milk is worth it. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week and freezes well.
Makes 4 cups
1 large mature coconut, or 2 small mature coconuts
3 cups hot water
Carefully crack or drill a hole in the coconut using a hammer and a screwdriver or a power drill and pour the coconut water through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Most coconuts yield about 3⁄4 cup water. Split the coconut in half. Remove the tough outer shell, then peel the dark skin off the coconut meat. Rinse thoroughly, dry, then grate using the grating attachment of a food processor if available, or a box grater. Combine the grated coconut with the hot water and reserved coconut water. Mix well and press with a potato masher or through a ricer to get out all of the coconut milk. Set the coconut meat aside. Pour the coconut milk through a fine-mesh sieve. You should have 4 cups of coconut milk. (If you’re short, add a bit more warm water to the grated coconut and press again.)
From Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South by Von Diaz. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida.