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Three of my friends and I recently celebrated four birthdays at once with an elaborate, scrumptious coconut cake. Layers of coconut sponge were topped with coconut milk frosting and then showered with shaved coconut. It was a huge hit.

I wasn’t surprised, since the flavour of this tropical fruit is immensely popular. Toronto’s Scaramouche restaurant hasn’t been able to take its coconut cream pie off the menu since it was developed in the mid-1980s.

If you want to cook and bake with it yourself, here’s what you need to know.

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After the white flesh of the coconut is removed from the husk, it can be eaten fresh or dried. Dried meat, as it is known, is turned into desiccated, shredded, flaked or shaved coconut pieces, which all vary in size. Some varieties may contain added sugar; this makes the coconut moister, but too sweet for my taste.

Desiccated coconut has been ground down to look like snow. It is usually incorporated into biscuits or cakes, as it dissolves easily. You can grind your own flakes in a food processor.

Shredded coconut has longer strands, which look good in cakes or muffins or sprinkled over cookies. Macaroons are covered in shredded coconut, for example.

Flaked or shaved coconut is larger in size and is best for decorating cakes or mixed into granola or cookies. It also toasts well, which brings out a nutty flavour and a crispy texture. It is a terrific snack and simple to make. Place coconut on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 325 F oven and toast for seven to 10 minutes or until browned. Stir a few times to make sure the pieces toast evenly.

Frozen shaved coconut is available in many supermarket chains. It is more flavourful than dried versions, although it can be used in the same ways. I particularly like it melted into Thai curry dishes.

Canned coconut milk is also easy to add to curries, as well as your morning smoothie. For the best flavour, look for brands where the first ingredient is coconut milk. This sounds obvious, but water is always added and guar gum is sometimes used as a thickener. If any other ingredients are listed, choose a different brand. Shake the can well before using to blend the hard cream with the more watery milk. Occasionally I have had to use a hand blender for this job.

Finally, coconut cream is available in cans and packages. It is thick and rich, perfect for making an Indian curry or dolloping on top of a dessert. For an easy final course combine one cup store bought lemon curd with ½ cup thick coconut milk or coconut cream. Layer with crumbled ginger cookies and blueberries or any fruit you like. (This makes four smallish portions.) Freeze any leftover coconut milk as it does not keep long refrigerated.

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Need some advice about kitchen life and entertaining? Send your questions to lwaverman@globeandmail.com.

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