What Is Coconut Ice?

With a name like coconut ice, it's easy to imagine some type of frozen treat. Maybe something along the lines of Italian ice or a slushie. But this dessert's name is very misleading. There's no ice in coconut ice — it's actually a room-temperature sweet with a long history. But this confection does feature a lot of coconut flavor.

This simple concoction features fresh or desiccated coconut flakes and sugar. The sugar is dissolved in either condensed milk or water to form a syrup, which is combined with the coconut. The result is a remarkably portable and easy-to-create treat, which makes it a great treat for a picnic or a bake sale.

In Australia, coconut ice is often served at Easter and Christmas. This layered dessert can be formed into the shape of an Easter egg or colored red and green for the holiday season. Coconut ice has an impressive shelf life, staying good for nearly a month. 

History of coconut ice

Coconut ice has been around for more than a century. One of the first recipes for coconut ice dates back to 1888 when it appeared in "The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook" as "cocoanut ice." This version called for only four ingredients: sugar, water, cochineal, and shredded coconut.

From its early days, the treat had its distinctive two layers: one white and one pink. And that pink color came from an unusual source. Before food coloring was readily available, the cochineal, a type of insect, was dried and crushed into powder, which has been used to give food a red or pink color.

Coconut ice soon became a sought-after treat in Britain, according to "The Oxford Companion to Food." There's no clear source for why these little cubed confections have "ice" in their name, but some think it may be about their pale color or their sugary smoothness.

What is coconut ice?

Coconut ice — also known as coconut creams — is considered a classic treat, not just in Britain, but in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. It's been a bake sale staple for generations.

Somewhere along the way, a bit of food coloring was added to the recipe to replace the cochineal to make this pink-and-white layered confection, which sometimes is done in separate colors as shown above. The ingredients have also shifted a bit to include milk or condensed milk into the mix, and this addition makes for a softer confection.

The star of this treat is coconut, and recipes for coconut ice feature either fresh or desiccated shredded coconut. It's often desiccated coconut that's used because it's easier to buy and less labor-intensive than trying to grate fresh coconut. Some versions of coconut ice also include a bit of vanilla extract for flavor, while other recipes add coconut flavoring to amp up its primary taste.

How to make coconut ice

For old-school coconut ice, you can follow the advice of "The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook," which calls for making a sugar syrup from sugar and water. Use twice as much sugar as water. For example, you can use two cups of sugar for one cup of water. Add these ingredients to a saucepan and cook until the mixture forms into a syrup.

Then stir in two cups of grated coconut and remove from heat. Pour the combined ingredients into a greased pan or a pan lined with parchment paper to make removal easier. You can make a second batch of sugar syrup-coconut mixture if you want to create a second layer — just add a drop or two of red or pink food coloring to the second batch. Allow it to set for several hours.

More modern takes on coconut ice use milk or condensed milk in place of water or sometimes in addition to it. The sugar of choice also varies from white sugar to icing sugar as does the best ratio of sugar to liquid in making the syrup ranges.

Some recipes make this a no-bake treat by combining all of the ingredients in one bowl. If you decide to go in this direction, you'll put the mix in a lined pan and let it rest in the fridge to firm up for a few hours. Adding flavored extracts is another way to tweak this treat, creating a contrast to the coconut layer.

Where to find coconut ice

Unless you're traveling to one of the regions where coconut ice remains popular, finding this confection is going to be a challenge. Brach's used to make a similar item called Neapolitan Coconut Sundaes, which had three layers that featured strawberry, coconut, and chocolate flavors. Unfortunately, this treat was discontinued in 2012.

This flavor profile lives on in other products, however. Other companies have continued to market a bar that's known as a coconut slice. These can be found online at several retailers.

If you're willing to search for it, some versions of coconut ice can be found in online stores. Meshuggah, based in Cape Town, South Africa, sells strawberry and vanilla-flavored coconut ice. Golden Days, an Australian snack company, tries to make this sugar-laden treat healthier by pairing coconut and apricot together in their Apricot Coconut Slices.

There's also a vegan take on coconut ice available on Etsy. But if you want to save on shipping, it might just be easier to whip a batch of coconut ice yourself.