Anne Byrn's family ambrosia
In this edition of Taste of a Place, bestselling cookbook author Anne Byrn shares the story of her family's ambrosia fruit dessert and provides the recipe so you can try it over the holidays.
One of the most vivid food memories I have is the Christmas Eve dining room scene when I was a young girl. The table was set with my mother's best china. And on the tall cherry sideboard was a dizzying lineup of sweets — orange layer cake, chocolate cake covered in a poured fudge icing, decorated sugar cookies and sugar-dusted crescent cookies. And always in the center, there was a bright-orange ambrosia filling my grandmother's cut-glass punch bowl.
Most years, the ambrosia contained sections of fresh oranges with a scattering of pineapple on top, just enough to sweeten the oranges so you didn't have to use sugar. Often it was covered with grated coconut, but never, ever, bananas or maraschino cherries, or other oddball ingredients some folks put in ambrosia. What my mother loved about ambrosia was its simplicity — really good oranges that come into season around Christmas. She liked what ambrosia symbolized, too. It was a treat shared at the most wonderful time of the year.
Ambrosia was my mother's way of communicating to us about her history. She was the youngest of five daughters raised in the 1920s, and she lost her father when she was just 12. Her older sisters and mother had to work hard to support the family, and treats on the dinner table were rare. And yet, theirs was a happy life. Those sisters and their mother were fiercely close. One sister — my aunt Mary Jo — survives, and she turned 94 this year.
The story my mother told each Christmas as we pulled oranges and tangerines from our stockings, was that for as long as she remembered, citrus was prized but too pricey for everyday consumption. But at Christmas, oranges were bought and shared out of love. They filled your stockings, were squeezed into juice for a fresh orange cake, and they were scooped out and sectioned for Christmas Eve ambrosia.
Citrus and oranges are a fascinating crop
Citrus is a fickle crop, affected by freezes and diseases. Think back before there was global shipping and before the sophisticated disease-resistant growing methods of today, which allow oranges to be available year-round. In a bad year, you didn't have oranges. Or, if they were available, they were priced too high for the budget of many Southerners. People simply did without.
Oranges are native to Florida, Texas, and areas along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Spanish explorers brought Seville orange trees with them to transplant in the warm, coastal soil, where they eventually thrived and would travel via Native Americans up America's coastlines.
We learn today from Lowcountry historians like David Shields, of the University of South Carolina, that oranges have been a part of the Lowcountry diet since they were first grown there. The fruit was a "breakfast staple, beverage, a component of sweet-sour confectionary, an acidic substitute for vinegar, and a health tonic." And because oranges ripen on the tree and have a short shelf life, the homegrown orange, allowed to ripen on the tree as long as possible before picking, always tasted the best. Charleston gardens contained orange, lemon and lime trees, and vendors would sell hand-picked oranges in the city as early as 1737. Those who could afford sugar turned the bitter Seville orange into marmalade, orangeade and sweet orange wine. Commercial orange planting of other varieties began in Florida in the early 1800s.
Historians tell us that the early Southerners believed in the special healing tonic of citrus before England's Royal Navy fought scurvy with fresh lime juice in the 1790s. But it wouldn't be until the early 20th Century that researchers fully understood the power of vitamin C. One of my favorite stories from this time is of an American Army nurse in World War I. She would rob the officer's quarters of fresh oranges, then, like Robin Hood, take them to the infirmary, where she would slice them in half and squeeze the fresh orange juice right into the mouths of wounded soldiers.
Reconnecting in the kitchen with an ambrosia recipe
My older sister has never loved to cook. I wonder if this was because I took it on with a passion and made a career of it. She says she just doesn't enjoy it. But there is one recipe that she now makes each Christmas Eve: our mom's ambrosia.
The first time she told me she wanted to attempt ambrosia was probably five or six years ago. Once I got past the shock of that bold statement, I was just so happy inside because this recipe was going to make us closer. I was certain of it.
The deal was that she brought some oranges and I too would get some, and we would make it in my kitchen. Well, we also brought our own perception of what ambrosia should look like, based on our own memories. For example, my sister recalled ambrosia being soft, not in perfect sections, so she sliced the oranges in half and used a serrated grapefruit spoon to scoop out the sweet orange from each section. And I recalled the pieces were larger, so I decided to peel the oranges like an apple, removing all the peel and bitter white pith underneath. With a sharp paring knife, I cut into both sides of the membrane of each section to expel what the French call a "supreme," which is a naked orange section, still intact.
As it turned out, having a portion of the oranges spooned out and some sectioned made a visually more interesting ambrosia, as did having a combination of oranges. Creating ambrosia, we discovered, was a little like painting. It you use only one type of orange in ambrosia or paint the leaves of a tree the same shade of green, the end result looks flat and dull. But if you marry different types of oranges, with their inherently different colors, in ambrosia, or paint the tree leaves various shades of green — both light and dark, both blue-green and yellowish-green — creates an ambrosia (or a painted tree) that looks much more beautiful and real. Having navel, tangerines, tangelos, the pinkish-orange Cara Cara and a few reddish blood oranges made ours a vibrantly hued and distinctive-tasting ambrosia.
It was, in short, a big success.
So, each year my sister returns to my kitchen with her bag of oranges and I have mine, and we cut, and section, and scoop, and talk. Memories of past Christmases are shared. The pain of losing our parents seems to ease. It might have been an ambrosia recipe that brought us together, but I can't help but think it was love.
Here is our mother's method of making ambrosia. Take it, make it with your family, and experience the simple joy of oranges and family this Christmas. We seldom use a recipe, since making ambrosia has a lot to do with how many oranges you can get your hands on and how many people you will serve. And don't worry about leftovers — just serve them on Christmas morning!
Bebe's Christmas Ambrosia
Note: Having a portion of the oranges spooned out and some sectioned makes a visually more interesting ambrosia. We like to use a mixture of oranges in this ambrosia to make it more vibrantly hued and distinctive. Our favorite combination is navel, Cara Cara, Temple, blood oranges and tangerines.
Hands-On Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
16 oranges (see note)
1 cup finely chopped fresh pineapple or canned unsweetened pineapple
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut, for garnish (optional)
Divide the oranges in half. Peel one half, and with a sharp knife cut away all the white pith. Carefully remove the orange supremes by slicing down into the membranes that surround them, and discard any seeds. Place these supremes into a glass bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Cut the remaining oranges in half. Using a serrated grapefruit spoon, scoop into the well of each section and place in a second glass bowl. Cover with plastic wrap refrigerate until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, transfer all of the oranges and pulp into a large glass or punch bowl. Cover with the pineapple, and then top with the coconut, if desired. (You can also serve the coconut on the side.)
Serve in punch cups along with decorated sugar cookies.
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