Whenever I was sick at home from school, my grandmother would unlock her small walk-in closet and get out an old leather suitcase full of goodies that were ordinarily off limits to anyone. There were old pictorials, Linguaphone phono records, theater programs from London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. She would then begin to tell me stories — recounting and recreating tragic sagas from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Hamlet, or funny stories from The Pickwick Papers. It was usually in the winter when I was sick with the cold or the flu. My grandmother would close the thick drapery and crank up the phonograph to play Linguaphone records for me. More than 40 years have passed and I can still close my eyes and hear the authoritative British male voice saying: “Lesson number one: My Family — my wife, my son, my daughter and I… I am standing by the window, smoking a pipe, my son is kneeling on the floor, playing with a train…”
It was brazen and defiant of her to have kept that suitcase and shared the content with me in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Most of what my grandparents brought back from abroad were either taken by the red guards or burned by my parents who feared the potentially dire consequences of owning anything foreign.
I think it was behind the closed doors of her darkened room, with a sore throat and a fever that I first began to conjure up faraway lands and unfamiliar tongues. Subconsciously I was made to believe that perhaps life was more than the monotonous indoctrination that I was fed in school and by society. My grandmother’s stories balanced my education. That she was a great story teller and charming conversationalist also helped us in unexpected ways.
In my late teens, I became a national darling for starring in the films Youth and Little Flower. There were often gentleman callers who came to our old house in Shanghai with the desire to meet me. According to my grandmother, they were all sons or grandsons of some high level cadres. She said that they were trouble and I should not meet any of them. As I sat in the bathroom or the kitchen with a book, my grandmother would be chatting with the visitor, over a cup of tea or a cigarette. Scheherazade may have told one thousand and one tales to save her own life; my grandmother told one thousand and one tales to spare me the “trouble” and to have fun. Some disappointed suitors would leave right away at hearing that I wasn’t home, but others would stay for quite a while chatting and laughing with my grandmother, genuinely enjoying her company. She must have appeared quite an exciting and maverick old lady to them. A number of them became her friends and forgot all about their initial intentions of meeting me. Until her death, they often visited her, bearing gifts of oranges, tea or sweets. She had many cross generational friends — “Wang Nian Jiao” in Chinese，meaning literally “forget age connection.”
The first coconut sweet I ever had was a piece of kaya toast. Kaya jam is made of coconut milk, egg and sugar. One of my grandmother’s “forget age connections” once brought her a can of the golden luxury and it was the best thing that I had ever tasted.
As I made this coconut pie, I thought of that first taste of the kaya and my grandmother who shared it with me. She would have called me a genius to make such a delicious coconut cream pie with tofu. I wish I could claim I invented this.
Coconut Obsessed Pie
For the coconut-graham cracker crust:
6 whole graham crackers or homemade wholewheat graham crackers (about 4 oz)
3 tablespoons whipped butter
3 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut
For the filling:
1 teaspoon gelatin
12.3 oz package organic silken tofu, firm (Mori-nu brand)
1/4 cup milk of choice for the gelatin, I used coconut milk
1/2 cup full fat canned coconut milk
1 tbsp sweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup xylitol or sugar
4 packs stevia, or to taste
A pinch of salt
Optional topping: toasted coconut flakes
Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the whole graham crackers in a re-sealable plastic bag and crush with rolling pin, then measure 1 cup of crumbs and discard the rest.
In a medium-sized bowl or a food processor, combine the graham cracker crumbs, xylitol or sugar, 3 tbsp shredded coconut, whipped butter and 1/2 tablespoon of water; blend until it has a texture of coarse meal.
Press into an 8-inch pie dish making the crust about 1/8-inch thick evenly all around and up the sides, evening the crumbs up to make sure there are no gaps or holes. Note: If you refrigerate the crust for 30 minutes before you bake it, this will help prevent crumbling when you want to serve it.
Bake until the edges are golden, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the crust cool on a wire rack, before filling.
Meanwhile, dissolve the gelatin in 1/2 tablespoon of water in a small bowl for 5 minutes.
Lightly mash the silken tofu with a fork and place it in the blender with the canned full fat coconut milk and remaining tablespoon of shredded coconut and blend until smooth, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes.
Heat the 1/4 cup of coconut milk beverage in the microwave 40 to 45 seconds, and mix in with the gelatin until dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the blender and blend until smooth.
Pour into the graham cracker crust and refrigerate until it sets, about 3 to 4 hours. Top with shaved coconut, if desire.