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Appassionata: Ode to a Lilikoi

The scent of plumeria's lovely;
The taste of pineapple divine -
I love nothing more than to sit on the shore
Of a black sand beach in the sunshine.

Oh a coconut's creamy and nutty,
Macadamias food for a king,
The coffee from Kona is likely to own ya,
Paniolo will tear up your heart when they sing.

The musk of the rain forest woos me,
Fresh guava juice better than wine,
But the fragrance that whispers Hawaii to me
Is a lilikoi straight off the vine.

The slack key guitar is so haunting
It will bring a grown man to his knees.
A glimpse of an outrigger's likely to trigger
Nostalgia for groves of palm trees.

The sea turtles bask on the shoreline
And the butterfish melts in your mouth;
The reefs are a dizzying rainbow;
A healing breeze wafts from the South.

The wind from the sea is a delicate wind,
Fresh and pure as a maiden's first blush,
But cut open the fruit named for passion
And Hawaii comes back in a rush.

Hawaiian white ginger seduces
With scent that's both tender and bold,
The voice of the ocean will lull you to sleep
And the sun there will turn you to gold.

Oh, hibiscus is brazen and scarlet
In the hair of the virgins entwined,
But the fragrance that sings of Hawaii to me
The perfume that whispers Hawaii to me
The scent that brings back my Hawaii to me
Is a lilikoi straight off the vine.

Island nostalgia you are welcome to skip past to get to the recipe

That's a little ditty I just made up, and it should be set to music, played on slack key guitar, and sung in a sweetly heartbreaking voice by a lone paniolo. It's the truth, though. Of all the fragrances in Hawaii - and there are thousands unique to those islands - it's the fragrance of a freshly cleft lilikoi, or passion fruit, that transports me to my favorite place in the world.

Say it: lil-i-koi. It rolls off the tongue like a song, doesn't it? It even sounds tropically magical, exquisitely delicious. It is.

The joke among Hawaiian gardeners is that you'll get a lilikoi vine wherever you spit the seed. It's true. The vines are incredibly opportunistic and hardy, much like watermelon, and they adore the rich volcanic soil that the Hawaiian islands are made of.

The rind of a mature lilikoi fruit is unremarkable in every way, a dull yellow that's often spotted with bruise-colored dots. When ripe, the fruit might take on a purplish hue. The passion fruit you find in supermarkets on the mainland are even uglier - usually wrinkled, shriveled affairs bearing little to no resemblence to fresh island lilikoi. The husk is tough and reluctant to give up its treasure.

But. BUT! Once you saw open the husk (a breadknife or other serrated knife is a must here) you will be enveloped in one of the most haunting fragrances known to man. Simultaneously floral and intensely fruity, sharp as a stiletto but soothing as birdsong, the scent of a ripe lilikoi is something you never forget. It smells like nothing else on earth. It enslaves you, ruins you for ordinary fruit the way an exotic courtesan ruins you for ordinary girls. The pulp is an otherworldly greenish-yellow hue, a stark and startling contrast to the dull exterior of the fruit. It has a slightly gelatinous texture, and the seeds are edible.

Eaten raw from the shell, lilikoi pulp is an acquired taste. It is almost too much to bear, the unadulterated taste of lilikoi. It's tart beyone belief, but not particularly citrusy; it is astringent without being cruel; it actually reminds me of an extra-sour sweet tart candy. It's a natural pixie stick. The tiny seeds are crunchy and flavorless, similar to pomegranite seeds, but the pulp itself is a bracing melody in your mouth.

Just as the fragrance of honeysuckle always brings me back to the South of my childhood, the fragrance of fresh lilikoi transports me directly to Captain Cook, Hawaii. I do so love what scents do to me.

I personally love to eat lilikoi straight from the shell, but I admit that it is often better enjoyed when added as a sweetened puree to other foods. It's potent; a little goes a long way, but every step of that journey is amazing. I've tasted a lilikoi sorbet that brought tears to my eyes, its bright assertive flavor a ballet on my tongue. I've eaten ono and ahi smothered in lilikoi butter, the pungent, almost-but-not-quite-citrus flavor of the lilikoi acting as a vibrant counterpoint to the rich flesh of the fish. Once I had the good fortune of tasting a tropical fruit salad - real tropical fruits, mind you: creamywhite cherimoya, apple bananas, pineapple fresh from the field, starfruit, papaya - dressed simply with an unsweetened lilikoi puree. I've had lilikoi cream puffs, lilikoi chiffon pie, and a cocktail called a Lilikoi Lemon Drop that made me want cocktail hour to last forever and ever, amen. Dress a microgreens salad with lilikoi puree, good walnut oil, and sweet vinegar and you will not be sorry. I experienced a lilikoi and cream cheese danish along with a cup of pure Kona coffee that made breakfast way worth getting out of bed for.

But the lilikoi dessert that causes me to scoff at and spurn all other sweets is this: Lilikoi Cheesecake. I found this recipe online, tried it eagerly, and love it to pieces. It's actually a recipe for tarts, so I am going to call them Lilikoi Cheesecake Tarts. The recipe takes some planning, requires special ingredients, and is slightly difficult, but the payoff in terms of flavor and "wow" factor is priceless. It's no-bake, so cooking is limited to the crust and some cooking of the ingredients.

There's just no way to describe how decadent this dessert is. It's flavor is very bright, almost tart, but the cheesecake factor makes it velvety rich. Though the macadamia nut crust is something very special, the perfume of the lilikoi is the star here - the dessert is glazed and flavored with lilikoi. It takes the entire lilikoi experience to levels unknown. Even if you've never been to Hawaii, this taste will bring you there.

Note that fresh lilikoi are next to impossible to get in most places on the mainland, but if you can find some, even the shrivelly kind, do snap them up and try them for this recipe. If you can't get fresh passion fruit, you can certainly find passion fruit puree in most supermarkets and almost all gourmet markets.

Without further ado or prolonged bouts of island nostalgia, here's the recipe. Do enjoy it.


Lilikoi Cheesecake Tarts

First Things First: Lilikoi Puree

First you want to make the lilikoi puree. (Skip this step if you're buying your puree frozen.) For this step you'll need:

  • 24 lilikoi - about 2 pounds total (sounds like a lot, but they're actually quite small and yield little flesh)
  • 1 Tablespoon of cane sugar
  • cornstarch
  • Scoop out the pulp and seeds into a sieve over a large bowl. With your hands (which will subsequently smell like heaven), rub the fragrant glop through the sieve until all the pulp is in the bowl and the seeds are in the strainer. Throw the seeds away (or try to plant yourself a nice vine in a flowerpot).

    In a saucepan, mix the sugar and the cornstarch. You don't need much more than a pinch of the starch. Add the liquidy puree and bring it to a boil over medium high heat, stirring gently and making sure not to burn it. Allow the puree to boil for 4-5 minutes, then take it off the heat. Allow it to cool, stirring it occasionally while it does so.

Congratulations! You've made a puree suitable for all manner of culinary experimentation. It works wonders when slowly cooked with butter into an emulsified sauce for fish or chicken. (Might I also suggest sneff's excellent-sounding Passionfruit custard?) Now, onto the cheesecake. Crust first.

Macadamia Nut Crust

*Note: this crust would make almost any pie even more delicious. I can eat the crust straight.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 Cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, well-chilled
  • 1/4 Cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 Cup finely chopped unsalted macadamia nuts (don't process them in a food processor; that's a little too fine. I like the pieces to be sort of chunky.)
  • 1 Cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter eight 4-inch tart pans and line the bottom of each with parchment or greased waxed paper.

    In a food processor with a paddle attachment or using a pastry cutter, cut together the butter, brown sugar and nuts. Blend in the flour and mix until it resembles coarse meal.

    Place the dough in the pan and, using your fingers, lightly press the pastry evenly over the bottoms of the pans and one-fourth of the way up the sides. Put the tart pans on a sided baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until the crusts just start to brown. Let cool.

Okay, now you're ready to begin.

Lilikoi Cheesecake Tart Filling

Ingredients:

  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
  • 1/4 cup cool water
  • 1 pound cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup lilikoi purée
  • 1½ cups heavy (whipping) cream
  • Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let dissolve. In a medium bowl beat together the cheese and 1/2 cup of the sugar.

    In a double boiler over barely simmering water, whisk the egg yolks and remaining 1/2 cup of sugar together until pale in color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Cook the mixture until it thickens and coats the back of the spoon.

    Stir in the gelatin mixture off the heat and whisk gently until completely dissolved. Stir in the lilikoi purée.

    Beat the egg mixture into the cheese mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally.

    In a deep bowl, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the custard. Pour mixture into the cooled tart shells, level the tops and refrigerate until chilled and firm.

See, that wasn't so hard! Now for the piece de resistance: the glaze.

Lilikoi Glaze

Ingredients:

  • 1 Cup Apricot jam
  • 1/3 Cup lilikoi puree
  • In a small pan, warm the apricot jam over low heat until melted. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and stir in the lilikoi purée. With a spoon, gently spread the glaze over the chilled cheesecakes. Tap lightly on countertop to set glaze in place. Refrigerate for 1 hour to set the glaze.

    While the tarts are chilling, make one more pretty sauce: a raspberry sauce. For this you'll need the following ingredients:

  • 2 - 12 ounce bags of frozen raspberries (unsweetened)
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)
  • Raspberry liqueur (optional, but oh so tasty)
  • Thaw berries in sieve over a large bowl. Press berries through the sieve with the back of a large spoon to get the seeds out.

    To the strained juice, add lemon juice and sugar; stir to dissolve sugar. Top it off with a little bit of the raspberry liqueur and you have a sauce worthy of almost any dessert.

Serving Directions: Garnishes and such

You could hoard the tarts. No one would blame you. But why not make a few friends?

The recipe serves eight people handily. It's easy to double, but as is it will yield four very pretty tarts that would make Martha Stewart cry from envy. I think it's prettier to serve everyone a whole tart, but you can cut them in half as they are so incredibly rich, and boom! You have achieved luncheon or dinner party godhood. Add some pretty garnishes, just to gild the lily.

Ingredients for garnishes:

  • Fresh shredded and toasted coconut, or toasted coconut chips
  • Lightly toasted, unsalted macadamia nuts, very coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 Cup lilikoi puree
  • 1/3 Cup raspberry puree
  • Confectioner's sugar for dusting, if you want it (I think it detracts from the lovely colors, though)
  • 8 sprigs of mint leaves
  • Here's where you get to be creative.

    If serving whole tarts to each person, unmold tarts and carefully slice them in half with a very sharp knife. Place the halves on the plate sort of offset, and plop about a tablespoonful of the lilikoi sauce beside each half. Drop about a teaspoonful of raspberry puree into the middle of the lilikoi puddle. Take the tip of a knife and drag it through the vivid two-tone puddle; you should be trying for a festive pinwheel or radial design.

    Now get all arts n' crafts with your toasted coconut and macadamia nuts. Sprinkle, place carefully, whatever. If you must dust the finished product with confectioner's sugar, now's the time to do so. Artfully arrange the mint sprigs on top of each tart and you're golden.


I promise you: serve these tarts and you will be loved. They are very, very special, and would make a punchy addition to the dessert selection at Thanksgiving dinner or for a special birthday or Valentine's Day.

Me? I make them when I need to go back to where I wish home was.

Aloha, muffins!

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