Cocada amarela is an African sweet recipe and I have to say it is not easy to find an authentic Sub-Saharan dessert.
Indeed, dessert is not part of the Sub-Saharan African culture. When Africans eat dessert, they typically favor fresh fruits or fruit salads. The few dessert preparations that you may encounter over there have actually been imported from European cuisines. Cocada amarela is one of them, as it was imported by the Portuguese.
There are only a few desserts that were born in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, caakiri is a dessert from the Sahel region of West Africa, which consists of couscous, evaporated milk and yogurt, with some flavorings.
Ngalakh, a porridge made with karaw (millet couscous) and baobab fruit is very popular in Senegal.
Kashata, a coconut and peanut-based cookie that is baked on a stove is widespread in East Africa.
You can tell from these examples that Africans are definitely not used to baking or cooking elaborate desserts, and that they tend to prefer snacks that are eaten throughout the day, as opposed to after a meal.
A typical meal in Sub-Saharan Africa consists of a soup or stew like niembwe chicken. It is accompanied by a starch like fufu (pounded yam or cassava flour porridge), rice or ugali (porridge made of corn, millet or sorghum flour). Africans may eat fried fish or roasted meat with boiled greens or root vegetables, but the soup or stew is definitely the main dish. The multi-course meal, what we would call “from soup to nuts” in Western cultures or what Romans called ab ovo usque ad mala (“from the egg to the apples”), is definitely not the traditional African way to eat.
But let’s go back to our imported dessert called cocada amarela. Although the original version was imported by the Portuguese settlers, it was really invented in Angola. Located in the South of the continent, Angola is the 7th largest country of Africa. It was under Portuguese rule from the fifteenth century until its independence in 1975, around the same time other Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and Guinea Bissau also became independent..
As a matter of fact, my friend Betty’s sister-in-law Samira who comes from Cape Verde and with whom we shared our African feast, actually knew everything about this dessert.
Cocada amarela literally means “yellow cocada”. Cocadas are a macaroon-like confectionery popular in Latin America, including in Mexico and Brazil. The amount of egg yolks used is what gives cocada amarela this vivid color.
Have you ever noticed or wondered why numerous Portuguese desserts used a large amount egg yolks? Believe it or not, there is an actual explanation to it.
It all goes back to the doces conventuais tradition, or “sweets made in convents” in Portugal. This tradition goes back to the fifteenth century when sugar that was brought back from Portuguese colonies entered in the composition of desserts. Until then, honey was the main sweetener. Some of these traditional desserts, often with Catholic influenced names, include pastel de Santa Clara, pastel de Belém (also called pastel de nata), papo de anjo (angel’s chest), leite creme, barriga de freira (nun’s belly), brisas do lis, fios de ovos, arroz doce, toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven).
It was common practice in those Portuguese convents to use the egg whites for starching and pressing the clothes. Egg whites were also often used for filtering liquids, such as wine. The nuns then wisely thought to incorporate the sugar and the leftover egg yolks in their desserts. This is how the tradition of doces conventuais was born.
My friend Betty and I made this traditional dessert for an African feast we prepared for our respective families, in anticipation of our Sub-Saharan African cooking class we co-hosted.
Cocada amarela was delicious as is, but I would highly recommend adding a touch of citrus or sour fruit to it to balance the sweetness of the dessert. We used orange slices, but feel free to use lemon, lime passion fruit, or go crazy with the flavors and colors. Cocada is a great canvas to let your imagination go wild.
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups water
- 2 whole cloves
- 2 cups grated unsweetened coconut meat (about ½ coconut)
- 6 egg yolks
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (to taste)
Crack the coconut open. Cut it in smaller pieces, scoop out the meat and grate about half of it.
Combine the sugar, water and cloves in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When the sugar is entirely dissolved, stop stirring and allow to continue boiling for a couple minutes.
Reduce the heat to low. Remove the cloves. Add the grated coconut and mix well. Continue to simmer, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
Separately, beat the egg yolks until they thicken. Stir in about ½ cup of the syrup and mix, making sure that the egg yolks don’t curdle. Pour the mixture into the saucepan with the remaining syrup and stir thoroughly until reaching a homogeneous pudding texture.
Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently until the pudding is thick enough. Serve the pudding into individual serving bowls.
Serve warm or place in refrigerator to serve cold. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon at time of serving.