Coconut Vanilla Frozen Yogurt

October 1986. I live in southern California, about 45 minutes outside Los Angeles and I’m thirteen years old, a freshman in high school. Two months earlier, my step-father, sister, and I loaded up our battered blue compact Opel with clothes, dishes, and books and said good-bye to our home in Indiana. A small trailer weaves behind the car as we spoon peanut butter from a jar somewhere outside Las Vegas. “Endless Summer” by The Beach Boys replays in the cassette deck for the 50 millionth time which I never get tired of.

Stinson Beach sunset

We arrive in Orange County five days later where we settle into our temporary home, a motel about 20 minutes from the beach. My step-father starts his new job and during the last weeks of summer, I’m in charge of my 9 year old sister. For the first few days, we’re in the pool. Apparently, we’re not the only long-term guests. The mysterious French guy lounges poolside with a newspaper in the afternoons. We have a conversation or two with him and still don’t know what he does.

coconut vanilla frozen yogurt set-up

Our room has a small kitchenette, but we don’t bother cooking. We live off Jack ‘n the Box burgers and vending machine fare. We take the bus to Long Beach, the mall, and Huntington Beach. About a week into our stay, I pick up a newspaper in search of acting jobs. I find a talent agency and announce that I’m going into acting. My step-father says okay and drives me to the talent agency where I sit in a roomful of similarly starry-eyed teenage girl. A woman from the agency is no nonsense in her pitch. “First, you must work on your posture,” she says, “sit up straight, place your feet flat on the floor, and tight your abdominal muscles. This is the posture you must hold every waking minute. You must train your body to hold success.” So much for my diet of burgers and plastic wrapped cookies.

straining coconut cream

I’m relieved when the session ends and I walk out with a slip of paper with names of professional photographers, talent agents, and acting classes scribbled on it. My step-father snaps a few portraits of me for our first meeting with an agent. “You’re like a ray of sunshine,” she says. What does that mean? “We can definitely work with you. But you’ll need to get a professional headshot taken and sign up for an acting class. Also, we need to get you in braces and you’re thin but you still need to lose a few pounds. It’s just business.” Um, this isn’t what I had in mind. “Okay,” I reply.

I make a few calls. The estimates for my acting dream total over five grand. We’re living in a motel without much money. A few weeks later, school starts. I sign up for acting class. My teacher is into method acting. She looks as if she walked out of a Renaissance painting. Flowing red hair, long black skirts, and pale ivory skin. We warm up with improv exercises and perform dramatic scenes from William Gibson’s three-act play The Miracle Worker based on Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life.

greek yogurt

We finally find an apartment and move out of the motel where I’m reluctant to leave. I no longer have the same cast of characters to create stories around. I refocus my attention and decide that if there’s any hope of me getting an acting career, I have to get a job.

Around the corner from our apartment, I stumble on a TCBY yogurt shop one day after school. I answer a “Help Wanted” sign posted on the window and get a call back in a few days. I learn how to make the yogurt and twirl it neatly into spiraling peaks that tower inside sugar cones and stout cups. The yogurt tastes thin without its signature tang. I eat my mistakes and over the course of several weeks, I perfect my swirling technique until I realize that it’s all too much. I quit.

I return to my acting class with a new outlook. The braces can wait. The acting can’t.

February 2011. I’m walking around Greenwich Village on a 20-something degree blustery Saturday between IACP panel sessions about creating culinary apps and going behind the scenes with digital food writing.

365.2.19.11 (Greenwich Village outside Pinkberry)

I skip out on the fancy lunch and opt for Pinkberry frozen yogurt instead. I sample miniature cups of chocolate, original, lychee, green tea. In a single bite, I’m 13 again, living in southern California. Only each taste is rich and tangy with hidden fragrant notes. I choose green tea and top it with fresh blueberries, animal crackers, granola, and honey roasted sunflower seeds.

My dreams have changed somewhat but my taste for frozen yogurt hasn’t. This is the stuff I’ve been waiting for.

p.s. I’ve waited to write this post in light of what’s happening in the world. If you haven’t yet read Tea’s beautiful post about her time with her host family in Japan, you should. The disaster left behind by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan weighs heavily on us all. So, if you haven’t already given to The Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, or even if you have, you might want to check out these artists who are donating proceeds from sales of their works to various relief efforts.

coconut vanilla frozen yogurt

Coconut Vanilla Frozen Yogurt
Yield 1 quart

1 3/4 cups whole coconut milk (about 1 1/2/400 mL cans), strained to make coconut cream
2 vanilla beans (seeds scraped)
1 1/4 cups Greek-style yogurt (whole or 2%)
3/4 cup natural cane sugar
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

To make coconut cream:
To strain the coconut milk, line a mesh strainer with cheesecloth or a layer of paper towels. Slowly pour the coconut milk into the strainer (You’ll need to buy 2 cans, but will only use about 1 1/2 cans. You can stir the leftover coconut into steel-cut oats, pancake batter, or quick-breads); then refrigerate for an hour.

To prepare the vanilla beans:
Flatten the vanilla beans and cut them in half lengthwise. Scrape the seeds from each half with the flat edge of a knife.

To make the frozen yogurt:
Mix the coconut cream, yogurt, and sugar together in a medium-size bowl. Stir until the sugar is thoroughly mixed in. Add the vanilla bean seeds and shredded coconut.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.

(This recipe is inspired by Heidi Swanson’s Vanilla Frozen Yogurt).


  1. says

    True story. I’m at AWP in NYC one winter and find out my poet friend Mercedes has never been to Pinkberry. Let’s just say I got an itch and had us walk the 20 something blocks to get there. In cold weather. Tangy fro-yo is an itch that has to be scratched. I love yours with the coconut. This is on my to-make short list for the summer.

    • ArtandLemons says

      Anytime you get that itch and want to meet my at Pinkberry (either on your coast or mine) let me know! I’d gladly walk the 20-plus blocks…


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