The ‘cocoanut’ ice challenge

Coconut ice

'Cocoanut' ice. Photo Jacqui Newling © Sydney Living Museums

“½ cup of milk, 2 cups of sugar, 25 grams copha, 3/4 cup of coconut. How hard can it be to make coconut ice?” For the past few months a dedicated team of passionate and curious volunteer cooks have been testing out manuscript recipes from our families’ collections. One of the team, Paula Southcombe, reflects on one of the more challenging recipes:

I have cooked for years and am pretty proficient at most recipes and methods, but I have not however, ever cooked coconut ice before. Our manuscript ‘cocoanut’ ice recipe from the family collection at Meroogal gave a method by which these ingredients should be combined to form the delicious and attractive sweet called coconut ice which has been made in Australian kitchens for many generations.

Meroogal manuscript cocoanut ice recipe

Meroogal manuscript cocoanut ice recipe. Note that copha is called ‘white cloud’. Sydney Living Museums M86/1466

A process of trial and error

Well, it has taken me four attempts before I have finally arrived with a method that is foolproof. Each of the first three attempts had a result which left our team wanting. One crumbly, one too smooth, one just plain unrecognisable as coconut ice. The method recorded in the heirloom recipe was not very specific, nor perhaps suitable for today’s stoves and cooking utensils. But our final attempt was smooth and very acceptable once we refined and re- interpreted the instructions.

Cutting the cocoanut ice

Cutting the cocoanut ice. Photo © SydneyLiving Museums

The proof of the pudding… is in the making

You might think that this sounds like a frustrating experience, but I found it to be enjoyable at every level, being part of a small team of lovely people who share their knowledge of contemporary and colonial cooking. Each fortnight we have met at Elizabeth Farm to “test” the recipes found in a wonderful old handwritten cookbook. Some of the recipes have not always been the tastiest, most edible recipe, others surprisingly delicious and highly covetable. There are many cookbooks of today which will offer a better quality product, but that is not the purpose of the exercise. The process has allowed us to learn more about the way this 19th century family cooked cakes and biscuits, the ingredients they used, and the methods by which they recorded and shared their recipes. From reproducing them, we get a good idea of the tastes of the day, interesting to compare with our modern palates and expectations. Cooks these days need a little more detail in the method than was often offered in a woman’s own personal recipe book. In this instance we have definitely found that the method of putting things together can “make or break” the success of a recipe.

Margot, Paula and Charmaine, recipe testing volunteers, with an impressive spread from Meroogal manuscript recipes.

Margot, Paula and Charmaine, recipe testing volunteers, with an impressive spread from Meroogal manuscript recipes. Photo © Sydney Living Museums

At last, after four wonderful attempts, we are ready to ‘publish’ our successful method of combining the ingredients in this old recipe, while still retaining the integrity of the original, to produce a ‘cocoanut’ ice to be proud of.

Cocoanut ice (with copha)


  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 cups caster sugar
  • 30g copha
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond essence
  • 3/4 cups desiccated coconut
  • drop raspberry syrup or pink food colouring


This is one of two ‘cocoanut’ ices or, as we’d now say, coconut ices, in the Meroogal ledger of heirloom recipes. It’s a true test of culinary alchemy, but is worth the effort if you like to make things from scratch. Most modern coconut ice recipes use sweetened condensed milk, but here you’ll note that it was once a home-made product!


In a deep saucepan over low heat, warm the milk, sugar, copha, essence and a pinch of salt. Stir gently until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook for 5 minutes without stirring. Remove from heat, add the coconut and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Pour into two shallow bowls, adding the syrup or food colouring to one bowl. While the mixture is still warm, beat each batch with a metal spoon for a few minutes or until the mixture becomes smooth and thickens. Transfer one batch onto silicon paper and shape into a neat square or rectangle.
Carefully spoon the second batch on top and shape to match. Allow to rest for 30–40 minutes or until almost firm, then slice into neat squares. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.