Start with a classic coconut cream pie made with coconut milk custard.
Like all books, cookbooks fall into different genres -- the compendium, the celeb chef, the celeb restaurant, regional cuisine, specific item (cakes, soups), or the focus on a single ingredient. This last can come in handy if you have a lot of something during the harvest (zucchini, tomatoes) or you or someone you know really, really loves a certain ingredient.
Luscious Coconut Desserts by Lori Longbotham (Chronicle Books) falls in the last camp, although I don't know anyone who really, really loves coconut. I've met people who loathe it, but it doesn't seem to inspire the same kind of devotion in sweets-lovers that, say, chocolate does.
After reading through Luscious Coconut Desserts, I wonder if coconut hasn't gotten a poor rep in these parts from poor quality shredded dried coconut sold for baking. Its cottony-waxy quality doesn't seem natural.
Longbotham starts the book with a coconut primer, outlining the differences between young and mature coconut for instance, and also devotes several pages to using fresh coconut. She notes that you should buy fresh coconuts from a store that experiences rapid turnover in coconuts, which in Madison -- as far as I can tell -- is nowhere.
But you do not have to start by cracking open a fresh coconut to improve coconut's flavor. I have done it, and it is a lot of effort. The good news is, some shredded coconut is better than others. And canned coconut milk is sometimes even better than fresh, according to Longbotham, due to commercial extraction methods. She recommends several of her favorite brands, e.g. Chaokoh, found at Asian markets. Avoid product with added dextrin, casseinates, or gums/emulsifiers.
Likewise, shredded coconut in various forms is best found at Asian markets and again, one with good product turnover. Shredded coconut is also available frozen.
But on to the recipes. Start with a classic coconut cream pie, here with a custard made with coconut milk. "Ambrosia," a mid-America picnic standard usually made with canned fruits, shredded coconut and marshmallow is here transformed into a salad with fresh oranges and ribbons of fresh coconut with a trace of allspice. A creamy coconut bread pudding, made with coconut milk, shredded coconut and lemongrass is a great turn on another familiar, homey dessert. More spice variations come in an easy and rewarding cookie, a coconut and curry butter cookie.
Among the cakes, pies, tarts, cheesecakes, cookies, puddings, granitas, sorbets and ice creams in the book, there are plenty more that are appealing and approachable (photos of nearly every dessert, by Lucy Schaeffer, contribute to the appeal). Nothing is too complex (except possibly a baklava) although I say that as someone who has come to actually look forward to rolling out a pie crust.
Bottom line: if you've never given coconut a second thought, do.