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The Secrets to Making an Awesome Piña Colada

One can hardly discuss frozen drinks without bringing up one of the best-known items in the category, the piña colada. A trip to the Caribbean wouldn't be complete without one. It's so popular in its birthplace, Puerto Rico, that it was named the country's official drink in 1978.

I don't know about you, but I've almost given up on piña coladas in bars. Nobody makes a good one. They inevitably taste like suntan lotion instead of a drink. To make matters worse, they're usually so light on rum I can't tell whether the bartender made mine with alcohol or not. Thankfully, I'm here to save the day.

You likely know the ingredients of a piña colada. There's rum, coconut, and (of course) pineapple juice. But there's a secret fourth ingredient. When the piña colada was invented in the 1950s at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, the creator added heavy cream. This gives the drink a smoother, creamier texture than one without. Try it; you'll be glad you did.

With the big secret out of the way, I'm going to have some fun and show you some upgrades. We'll start with pineapple juice. Bottled pineapple juice is, for the most part, decent. But, if you get your hands on a really good fresh pineapple, you can get great juice out of it. Note that quality is essential: If the pineapples at the market are anything less than top-notch, you're better off cracking open a can of Dole juice.

A great pineapple shows distinct signs of excellence. It should have fresh green leaves, and the bottom should be mold-free (you'd be surprised how many grocery ones have this problem) and smell strongly of sweet pineapple. If you have a juicer, you've already juiced fresh pineapples and you know what you're doing without me holding your hand. If you don't have a juicer, there's still hope; pineapples give up their juice readily. Chop the pineapple into chunks, mash it with a potato masher, then squeeze the juice out of the mashed pulp. Piece of cake. Trust me.

The other signature ingredient of the piña colada is cream of coconut. Not coconut milk (it's too thin), not coconut cream (it's not sweet), but cream of coconut, a product created by mixing coconut cream and sugar. There are a few brands of cream of coconut available, but only one is worth buying: Coco López. Everything else (especially the ones in squeeze bottles) should be shelved next to Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil.

If you're feeling adventurous, make your own cream of coconut. First, make coconut cream. Mix unsweetened dried coconut with enough water to run it through a blender without clogging up the blades, then squeeze the liquid out from the pulp. Once it separates, the part floating on top is coconut cream. Mix sugar into the coconut cream, and you have cream of coconut.

You thought I forgot the booze, didn't you? Light rum lets the bright flavor of pineapple and coconut shine through. Some people prefer some (or all) dark rum; it's personal preference. A dash of Angostura bitters isn't traditional, but it gives the drink an enjoyable extra something. If you have macadamia nut liqueur hanging around, try replacing half the rum with that. And, of course, if you use vodka instead of the rum, you've made a Chi Chi.

Piña Colada
Use a light hand with the ice; too much will mask the flavor of everything else. 6 ounces pineapple juice 1 ¼ ounces Coco López or homemade cream of coconut (recipe follows) ¾ ounce heavy cream 2 ounces light rum 1 dash Angostura bitters (optional) ¾ cup crushed ice (or 1 cup ice cubes) Blend at high speed until smooth (10 to 20 seconds). Pour into a large glass or Tiki mug. Garnish with a pineapple wedge.

Chi Chi: Replace the rum with vodka.
Macadamia Chi Chi or Piña Colada: Replace 3/4 ounce of vodka or rum with macadamia nut liqueur
Virgin Piña Colada: Omit rum; increase pineapple juice to 8 ounces.

Fresh Pineapple Juice Without a Juicer Thoroughly mash 12 ounces peeled cored pineapple with a potato masher. Press pulp through a chinois, or put pulp in a clean tea towel, twist closed, and squeeze to extract juice. Yield: 6 ounces, enough for 1 piña colada.

Cream of Coconut 1 generous cup unsweetened dried coconut 1 ¼ cups warm water 1 cup sugar

Blend coconut and water in blender at high speed until very smooth, about 1 minute. Set a clean tea towel in a large strainer over a bowl. Pour mixture into strainer. Twist towel closed, squeezing to extract liquid. Discard remaining coconut solids. Let liquid stand until it separates into water and coconut cream, about 20 minutes. Spoon cream into a liquid measuring cup; you should have about ¾ cup. (To make this easier, refrigerate until cream solidifies. Or, use a gravy separator.) Discard remaining liquid. Mix together coconut cream and sugar. Refrigerate until needed.