When you love coconut, you want to taste coconut. It took me years to understand that my coconut cream pies were just okay, and tasted more like vanilla custard pie with a little bit of coconutty chew rather than like truly tropical coconut cream. With all of the time I’ve spent in Florida (read: piña coladas), you’d think I would have knownlong that one can not taste true, smashing coconut flavor on coconut alone.

So: the big, wonderful world of extracts and flavorings. These do not have to be awful. These do not have to be imitation. They may not be as pure as the flower water distillations that make our Lebanese recipes sing (and which, by the way, pair beautifully with coconut, as we’ll see this week with our coconut cake)—but clean, organic extracts are absolutely there for us.

It may take a little more searching than a sashay down the baking aisle at Meijer. There, the extract row is screaming “IMITATION.” I find the way Imitation Coconut Flavor is offered so readily, without irony or disclaimer on the boxes from McCormick or generics, sort of stunning. My eyes go wide and I look to the lady beside the cart next to me, and I want to point and say, what is this? Do you see this? Why would I choose this?

I’ll tell you why. In Florida, in a Publix pre-Thanksgiving shopping pinch (we’d been to this grocery no less than twice a day for a few days. Beach smeach), I grabbed nothing short of imitation coconut extract and made a beeline for checkout. And my pie, though boosted by the false, was still one of the best we’ve had.

There are two options to consider when it comes to good coconut extracts: true extract, which is alcohol-based (like vanilla extract), or “flavoring,” which sounds bad but doesn’t have to be. It’s simply oil-based rather than alcohol-based.

Flavorganics makes an entire terrific line of organic extracts. For the flavoring oil-based route, go for an all-natural brand like Frontier.

Either way: Get after it! That way we can all enjoy the finest coconut cake (pow!!) to ever come out of our kitchens.

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