There is a particular American dessert (it is unequivocally American), called ‘ambrosia’. Now, the ‘original’ ambrosia, according to Greek mythology, was the food (and drink) of the gods. Naturally the word came to refer to other things ‘divinely sweet or exquisitely delightful to taste or smell’ (OED). It was surely inevitable that somewhere in the world a cook somewhere would one day appropriate the word for a new dish – or more likely a variation of an existing one.
As with so many recipes, we will almost certainly never know who first used the word in this way, but some angles seem likely. The place, we have established, is America – probably the South. The time was probably in the mid-nineteenth century. The first recipe I have found so far is from 1861, but recipes are usually established well before they appear in print. The earliest recipes for ‘ambrosia’ consist essentially of sliced oranges and grated coconut, and it seems likely that it was the addition of coconut (available and popular by the 1830’s) that justified a new name for the already common dish of chilled or iced oranges.
The modern dish of ambrosia - the one for mere mortals such as ourselves - has many interpretations. I give you a short selection, for you to judge if they be sweet and heavenly enough.
Grate cocoanut, and mix with it powdered loaf-sugar to suit the taste; slice sweet oranges and sift over them powdered loaf-sugar, fill a fancy glass, dish with layers of the oranges and cocoa, heaping the dish with cocoa.
[appears that ‘cocoa’ means cocoanut]
The Housekeeper’s Encyclopaedia of Useful Information, E.F. Haskell, 1861
1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, ½ cup milk, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs beaten separately, 1 teaspoon soda, and 2 of cream of tartar; bake in layers.
Filling: Mix together, with 1 beaten egg, ½ pint whipped cream, 1 full cup grated cocoanut, ½ cup sugar, juice of one orange. Put this preparation between the layers and on top of the cake.
Queen of the Household: a carefully classified and alphabetical repository of useful information that constantly arise in the daily life of every housekeeper. Mary W. Janvin, (Detroit, c1906)
Ambrosia, or Tutti Frutti
1 pint (2 cups) brandy
Various ripe fruits.
Put the brandy into a large stone jar, and add the various fruits as they come in season. To each quart of fruit add the same quantity of sugar; then stir the mixture with a wooden spoon each day until all the fruits have been added.
Raspberries, oranges, currants, cherries, strawberries, bananas, pears, plums, apricots, peaches, pineapples and apples are the best fruits to use.
Apricots, peaches, pineapples, apples, bananas, pears and plums should be cut in small pieces.
Keep covered with a cloth and a tight fitting cover.
This ambrosia is delicious to serve with ice creams, frozen puddings, sauces, cornstarch puddings and jellies.
Canning, preserving and pickling, Marion Harris Neil, c1914.
Ambrosia Pie [Warning: this makes 8 large pies!]
Yield 8 8 inch pies; 6 10 inch pies
Size of serving: 1/6 or 1/8 of a pie.
2 ¾ quarts of hot water
5 ½ cups flour
5 ½ cups sugar.
Mix the flour and sugar thoroughly; add about a quart of the hot water to this mixture and stir until perfectly smooth; add this to the remaining hot water and cook the mixture until thickened, stirring constantly with a wire whip.
27 (2 ¼ cups) egg yolks, beaten.
Add a little of the hot mixture to the egg yolks and combine. Return this to the hot mixture and cook it for about 5 minutes. Remove it from the heat.
4 ¾ cups orangjuice
1⅛ cups lemon juice
3 tablespoons grated orange rind
2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
2 ¼ teaspoons salt.
Add the juice and rind from the oranges and lemons; add the salt. Cool the mixture and put it into baked shells.
6 to 9 oranges
3 cups coconut
Cover the mixture with meringue but do not brown it. Section the oranges and arrange the sections on top of the meringue and sprinkle ½ cup coconut over each pie.
*Meringue [for same number of pies as above]
2 ¼ cups (from 18 to 22) egg whites
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
2 ¼ cups sugar, granulated.
Add the salt and flavouring to the egg whites.
Beat them until stiff but still shiny.
Add the sugar gradually; beat until the mixture piles up well in the bowlk and the sugar is dissolved.
Cornell Extension Bulletin 477.
Tamarind Ambrosia, from mid-nineteenth centrury Honduras is described here.
Quotation for the Day.
Bread and butter, devoid of charm in the drawing room, is ambrosia eating under a tree.