Several months ago, I attended the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival in San Francisco, California, 2,700 miles away from my home. Traveling alone is always a meaningful, reflective experience for me. To process my trip, I periodically share vignettes that I hope are meaningful to you, as well.
. . .
Normally, I would have said no.
On-the-spot requests for money make me nervous, and I made a rule years ago to always say no. I give food or supplies freely, as I’m able, to anyone who asks me for them. But I only give money if I have a space to sit, read about the organization, and make a thoughtful choice. That’s my rule, anyway.
But I wasn’t standing at a check-out counter being asked to donate a dollar to a charity, or walking down the street being asked for change. I was sitting on the BART, the Bay Area’s system of trains, and the little boy in front of me was adorably nervous. I waited politely as he took a deep breath and began a clearly well-rehearsed speech. It came out as one halting sentence.
“Hi-I-am-part-of-the-Boys-&-Girls-Club-and-we-are-raising-money-to-go-to-our-basketball-tournament-in-Reno-I-have-already-collected-all-but-$55-can-you-help-by-donating-today?” He took another big breath, obviously relieved to have finished his spiel.
I saw his friend delivering a similar pitch across the car and briefly considered that this might be an elaborate scheme to get more video game or snack money. My innate cynicism comes from personal experience, since I may or may not have canvassed my neighborhood when I was a tiny entrepreneur telling folks that I was an orphan soliciting donations for cancer treatments. Not one of my prouder moments. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone was fooled. A few people tried to tame their amusement as they slipped me some change, which, in hindsight, was unnecessarily generous.
Regardless of my own childhood scheming, I instinctively felt the child in front of me on the train was being honest, and what’s more, I decided I didn’t care. He had mustered up plenty of pluck to come ask me for a few dollars, and I was going to give them to him. I opened up my envelope of cash (such a tourist) and pulled out a few bills for him. His relief turned into joy. “Thank you!” he cried as he walked across the car.
I heard him deliver his pitch to another woman with a satisfied emphasis on his new balance: “…and all I need is $48 now!” She grinned at me as she handed him a couple of bills as well.
A few minutes later, I saw another passenger on the train say no. The boy, clearly coached to deal with this politely, veiled his disappointment as best he could and gave a resigned little nod. I glanced over at the woman and noticed she’d been watching the exchange as well. When she looked over at me, her face had the same sympathetic smile I was sure my own face was wearing. I didn’t blame the other passenger — after all, any other day and any other mood and I might have decided to follow my own rule — but I did resolve to pray for all the boys to get to go to their basketball tournament.
(And you know what? If he’s playing video games or eating some cheesy poofs with my money at this very moment, by golly, I hope he’s enjoying them.)
. . .
It’s funny how sometimes things — like a brief exchange on a train — build a little nook in your heart. Some moments are like that. Some people are like that.
I made these Chocolate & Coconut Cream Pie Bars for a special person who occupies her own shelf in my heart. Martha is Mike’s great-aunt, for all intents and purposes, and she’s truly a crackerjack of a woman. She deserves all sorts of sweet things — video games and cheesy poofs, even! — but I decided on these bars for her birthday because I know she enjoys coconut. The chocolate layer was a whim, but what a great one — the bittersweet ganache is just enough to add a rich background flavor while still allowing the coconut cream to shine.
These bars take a little time and a little arm muscle, but they’re easy to assemble and more than worth the time spent by the stove. If you love a good coconut cream pie, you’ll love them.
Tell me about a moment when you broke one of your own rules.
Chocolate & Coconut Cream Pie Bars
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking with filling adapted from All Recipes
Yield: 12-16 bars, depending on size
Okay, 30 minutes of stirring sounds like a lot. But now that I know how incredible these bars are, I would stir for an hour if I had to — maybe even two! They combine all the goodness of an old-fashioned coconut cream pie with the perfect amount of rich ganache. In short, these things are amazing. I used stabilized whipped cream on top of my bars, but if you’re serving them immediately and don’t anticipate keeping them long, feel free to just use plain whipped cream.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup icing sugar
3/8 cups heavy cream
about 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (I love Ghirardelli’s 60% cacao chips)
about 3 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
Coconut Cream Filling Ingredients:
3 cups half-and-half
3 cups coconut milk
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup flaked coconut
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whipped Cream Topping Ingredients:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon cold water (for stabilizing)
1 teaspoon gelatin (for stabilizing)
3-4 tablespoons icing sugar
1/2 cup coconut, toasted
Make shortbread crust: Preheat your oven to 350°F. Prepare a 9 x 13 in. baking dish with a parchment paper sling (I use one long sheet across the length of my dish, and two overlapping short sheets across the width of my dish — just arrange it so that it has some overlap and overhang to help you pull the bars out after they’re finished). Cut the butter into the flour and icing sugar and press into the baking dish (I used a food processor to cut the fat into the flour — about 6 pulses — and then the bottom of a glass to press the mixture into the pan). Bake 18-20 minutes or until light brown. Set on a wire rack. Keep oven preheated for coconut toasting.
Make ganache: While the shortbread is baking, place the chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer in a medium saucepan (or microwave it for a couple of minutes). Once the cream reaches a simmer, pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand 1-2 minutes. Whisk in small circles until a smooth ganache has formed. Set it aside until your crust is finished and has cooled for a few minutes, and then pour it over the crust (it’s okay if it’s not cooled all the way). Place the chocolate covered crust in the fridge to chill until the ganache is set into a firm layer.
Toast coconut for the topping: Spread about 1/2 cup of the coconut flakes out on a baking sheet and toast for a few minutes, stirring every minute or so, until the coconut is golden brown. Spread it out on a plate to cool completely.
Make coconut cream filling: Combine the half-and-half, coconut milk, eggs, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a large saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking constantly (this can take anywhere from 30-38 minutes. Some folks on All Recipes said you could zap it in the microwave for a minute at a time, stirring after every minute, until it was thickened. It was only supposed to take around 5-10 minutes, but I was too chicken to try. Let me know if you do.) Add coconut and vanilla extracts and the 1 1/2 cups of untoasted coconut and stir. Pour this filling over your chilled ganache and stick the whole thing in the fridge to chill until firm, about 2 to 4 hours.
Make whipped cream topping: Put 1 tablespoon cold water in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the top. Let it soften for 2 minutes before microwaving it for 30 seconds and whisking to dissolve the gelatin. Using a chilled bowl and beater, whisk the 2 cups of heavy cream and icing sugar together until the cream forms stiff peaks, stopping to add gelatin mixture about halfway through. Dollop the cream over your bars and gently spread it around. Sprinkle on toasted coconut. Chill until ready to serve to let the whipped cream set up. Use the sling to pull the bars out of the dish, slice with a sharp knife, and enjoy!
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