Grandma’s Ambrosia Salad

Don’t you sometimes wish that crystal balls were real? How nice it would be to see into the future, know what’s on the horizon, and act accordingly. I’m usually one of those people that never wants to know the future. I don’t want to know if I’m going to get a speeding ticket next week, much less know about significantly more important life events before they happen. However, I often wish I could have known when I was going to lose my dad and my grandma.

My dad was sick from leukemia complications for awhile, but up until the end he had a good prognosis. My grandma, although she was 91, was in good health, so it was a shock when she passed in her sleep on a random Sunday night. In retrospect (hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it?), I would have peppered them both with questions and spent every possible moment with them. My dad passed away when I was 19, and there were so many times afterwards that I had the urge to pick up the phone and ask him a question. It even happened once about four years later, when I was at work. A thought crossed my mind and before I could catch myself, I actually picked up the telephone to call him. Ever since my grandma passed away last October, I have many times found myself in similar situations, wishing I could quickly ask her a question. Sometimes it’s something family-related that comes up, but more often than not, it’s a recipe question. The most recent clarification I needed involved her ambrosia recipe, one of our family’s favorite desserts.

I can’t ever remember a time before ambrosia salad. We’ve been eating it in my family since I was old enough to chew, and most likely, for years or decades before I was even a blip on the radar. It seemed that my grandma could make ambrosia appear out of thin air, and with the frequency at which we ate it, it seemed to multiply like rabbits. We never ran out. How is that possible?!

Actually, it’s possible when you’re talking about an Italian lady who felt that the best way to show people you love them is to feed them. Then feed them some more. Then, even when they’re so full they can barely speak, you urge them to eat more, claiming that you hardly saw anything on their plate. That’s love. That, also, is how it comes to be that there is endless supply of whatever you’re serving. God forbid someone might still be hungry and there not be anything left. THAT is the definition of an Italian tragedy.

Ambrosia was served up routinely for Christmas and Easter, and pretty much non-stop during the summer. Compared to things like cake and pie, ambrosia salad is a wonderfully fresh and light dessert, which makes it perfect for sweltering July days. When I went to make it recently and asked my mom for my grandma’s recipe, a debate ensued.

My mom said my grandma used mandarin oranges and crushed pineapple. My sister said my grandma used fruit cocktail. Back and forth they went. As it turns out, they were both right.

My grandma’s original recipe is the one you find below, and included mandarin oranges and pineapple, as well as coconut and miniature marshmallows. However, my mom did say that when my grandma was in a pinch and didn’t have the oranges and pineapple, she’d just use a can of fruit cocktail, which is the memory that stuck with my sister. Which leads me to a quick aside – did anyone else’s grandma have can after can of fruit cocktail in the pantry? My grandma always had it, in large quantities, and I remember eating it a lot when I was a kid. I tend to think of fruit cocktail with a grandma-type of thing, since my mom never bought it.

The lesson here? Ambrosia is tremendously adaptable. Use what you have on hand. Use your family’s favorite fruits. Make it your own. Sometimes the simplest of recipes become the most special.

Also, we don’t have crystal balls. Ask lots of questions. Spend lots of time. Cherish moments.

Three years ago: GO PENS! with All-Occasion Sugar Cookies

Grandma's Ambrosia Salad

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

1 (11-ounce) can mandarin oranges, drained
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
2 cups miniature marshmallows
1 (8-ounce) tub COOL WHIP Whipped Topping

Directions:

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold together all ingredients in a large serving bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Disclaimer: As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I received coupons for free COOL WHIP Whipped Topping and a stipend. Sponsored posts are purely editorial content that we are pleased to have presented by a participating sponsor. Advertisers do not produce the content.

“What you add makes it. #coolwhipmoms
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90 Responses to “Grandma’s Ambrosia Salad”

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  1. Chung-Ah | Damn Delicious on May 30, 2012 at 1:05 am

    What a lovely post. And thank you for sharing your grandma’s recipe! I actually never had ambrosia salad before but it looks like something I will most definitely like.

    Reply

  2. ala-kat on May 30, 2012 at 1:52 am

    It is a natural reflex to reach out to those that are gone. I do the same thing. They may physically be gone, but they are always in our heart.

    Reply

  3. Brandon on May 30, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Did you ever have the “green” version of this with pistachio pudding mix added and no mandarins? I used to have it every year at Christmas, but haven’t had it for years.

    Reply

    • Lauren on May 30th, 2012 at 8:56 am

      This is called Watergate Salad. My grandma made is every year at Christmas. It is my favorite!

      Reply

      • Brandon on May 30th, 2012 at 10:38 am

        Yes, it is called that, but when I was a kid I just called it “green stuff.” I would often eat more of this than just about everything else on my Thanksgiving and Christmas plates. Except maybe mashed potato.

        Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 10:35 am

      I have not, but it sounds interesting!

      Reply

  4. Sherry on May 30, 2012 at 5:02 am

    The first time I’d even heard of Ambrosia was on Top Chef Masters and I think I was as befuddled as the guy who got it since it didn’t look all too appetizing.

    I don’t suppose this recipe could be modified to make it less processed? Like fresh orange wedges, fresh pineapple, and maybe homemade whipped cream? Oh, and homemade marshmallows! I try not to eat canned foods all too often, and I never saw a need for Cool Whip when whipping your own whipped cream is so incredibly easy. Or would all that change it too much from the original flavor?

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 10:42 am

      Hi Sherry, Absolutely! My boyfriend’s mom will sometimes make it with just leftover fruit that she wants to use up. You could definitely use fresh oranges, pineapple, marshmallows, etc. I think the fresh whipped cream would be okay if you’re definitely going to eat it the same day. Whipped cream can get a little weepy and runny once refrigerated for a longer period of time.

      Reply

    • Linds on December 4th, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      My Mum always makes this at Christmas time as a side. It is amazing how well this goes with turkey! She uses tinned mandarins, tinned pineapple chunks, Pascalls marshmallows (australian brand of soft fluffy marshmallows) cut in half, desiccated coconut and sour cream instead of cool whip (we don’t have cool whip in Australia). I think it would be entirely too sweet for me if I used cool whip! You could definitely use real fruit, although I have never tried it. The tinned fruit seems to have more ‘juice’ which soaks into the marshmallows.

      Reply

  5. Sue Ames on May 30, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Now that you mention it, my grandmother did have cans of fruit cocktail in the pantry, my mom did too but I never really did. I can remember my grandparents eating it after lunch. Thank you for helping with that memory.

    Reply

  6. kris pare on May 30, 2012 at 6:23 am

    I do believe we must have relatives that share recipes! This was so much a staple with us too. Mom or NeeNee would throw in some bananas sometimes. Ours mainly used whatever was in the house too. Great way to get kids to eat fruit!

    Reply

  7. Tanya on May 30, 2012 at 6:46 am

    My mom and dad are Greek, and there isn’t a meal where my mom doesn’t make a TON of food and expect everyone to get third or fourth helpings! Mom doesn’t use cook books, everything is in her head. I need to makes sure to write down all her recipes and make them myself before something should happen to her. It’s important to pass on these family recipes. I can’t believe I’ve never had ambrosia salad! It sounds so delicious!

    Reply

  8. bells-bakery on May 30, 2012 at 6:53 am

    I love this post,your remembering your grandmother through this ambrosia salad and some day you’ll make it for your grandkids and they’ll make it calling it your ambrosia salad. I lost my grandmother a few years back but everytime my mom cooks something of hers,it brings me back to being small in my grandmothers house.

    Shirley x

    Reply

  9. Jeri Barry on May 30, 2012 at 7:36 am

    Wonderful post Michelle! Mandarin oranges, fruit cocktail….things my mom always had on hand. She used to make a “salad” every Christmas with lime jello, cottage cheese, cool whip and canned crushed pineapple. Sounds like nothing a foodie would whip up but it went great with ham. I always tear up when I read about the loss of your grandmother and father. The advice you give about cherishing the moments you have is something we should all remember with regard to all of our loved ones. I don’t know why it is that I continually need to be reminded of that. My hat is off to you!

    Reply

  10. Jessica @ Portuguese Girl Cooks on May 30, 2012 at 7:57 am

    What a nice post Michelle. I’m in tears because this reminds me so much of myself, and how I wish I could pick up the phone and call my Grandpa to ask him baking related questions.
    Although I have never had ambrosia, thank you for sharing this recipe as I know how important family recipes are.

    Reply

  11. Emmy Lou on May 30, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Michele…being from Pittsburgh originally, I was drawn to your blog…and stayed because of your heart and talent. For those who are blessed to have their parents and grandparents around, please take the time to video tape them. My daughter told my parents it was a school project and now we have video of grandma cooking with a pinch of this and handful of that and grandpa describing growing up in a one room house in Ireland. Generations will hear their voices.

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 10:43 am

      Hi Emmy, What a wonderful idea to videotape. I so wish we would have done this!

      Reply

  12. Barbara Masino on May 30, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I remember making this recipe as a young bride back in the 60’s! It was always a hit. Now, being a more health conscious grandma, my spin on this classic is to use organic vanilla yougurt…it is just as delicious! Your recipes have that special ingredient…loving family memories. Thank you for sharing your family with us. BTW, my Italian born mom always had at least 6 huge cans of fruit cocktail in the pantry!

    Reply

  13. Nikki Rappaport on May 30, 2012 at 8:46 am

    A lovely story. I just remembered that my grandma also used to make Ambrosia Salad. In first grade we had to bring in a snack to share with our class, and I brought individual paper cups filled with it for everyone. Any my class hated it! I was so embarrassed that they didn’t like my dessert. I haven’t had it in a really long time but it definitely reminds me of my grandma too.

    Reply

  14. Kellie on May 30, 2012 at 9:00 am

    my family makes something similar, but instead of cool whip( it seems so slimey and oily to me) we would use sour cream…and mix it all together and it adds a perfectly fresh sweetness. My mom dislikes sour cream but this would be the one time she would buy and eat it. :) That would be one way to get around the cool whip. It would be amazing with fresh whipped creamtoo though!!

    Reply

    • Mary Jane on May 30th, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      I also use the sour cream and do try using the light version or fat free. My mil used to do a cooked version of this with cream and egg, almost like a custard. She always used the fruit flavoured (coloured) marshmallows and they gave the “salad” a more festive look. I remember her serving this as a part of the main course at meals and my kids loading their plates with it. I would tell them, “Not too much” and she would always retort “It’s salad; it’s good for them.” All that cream and marshmallow and not so much fruit. Wonderful memories.

      Reply

    • Terrie on September 1st, 2012 at 8:36 am

      Thanks Kellie that is my missing ingredient I was missing I just remember 7 things and got everything except the sour cream

      Reply

  15. Nancy on May 30, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Michelle, Another Pittsburgh version, My Mom called it Five Cup Salad. I cup chunk pineapple tid bits 1 cup oranges, 1 cup marshmallows, 1 cup coconut, 1 cup sour cream. It could always be doubled depending on how many servings.

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Oh, I like this, Nancy! So easy to remember!

      Reply

      • Robyn on May 30th, 2012 at 11:00 am

        this is what my mom calls it too, with all the same ingredients. except she uses those fruity/coloured mini-marshmallows. maybe this is the canadian twist?! i’ve also successfully swapped the sour cream with plain yogurt. yummm.

        Reply

  16. Barbara @ Barbara Bakes on May 30, 2012 at 9:06 am

    I could definitely relate to this post. My mom was 82 when she died and her health wasn’t good, but it was still shocking to me when see died. How nice that you remember your grandma making this salad for you. I bet it makes it taste even more special.

    Reply

  17. Catalina @ Cake with Love on May 30, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Grandmas have the best recipes!! This salad looks so delicious and the presentation is very nice!

    Reply

  18. Genny on May 30, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Love this post! And yes, my Grandma always had fruit cocktail in her pantry too! In fact, my Grandma seemed to whip something up out of nowhere with whatever she had in her pantry. Our Grandmas were incredible women! What pleasant memories you have! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  19. Jennifer on May 30, 2012 at 9:34 am

    I’m so glad you have your grandmother’s recipe. Then you can think of her every time you make it. My mother passed away from leukemia when I was 9, and when I dug through a hope chest when I was older, I found lots of her handwritten recipes. I cherish them. I made copies and sent them to my brothers so they could have them, too, even if they never made them. Thanks for sharing :)

    Reply

  20. Jennifer @ Peanut Butter and Pepper on May 30, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Ahhh, what a wonderful recipe from your grandma and a wonderful post!

    Reply

  21. Susan on May 30, 2012 at 10:00 am

    I remember this recipe well and could eat it right now. Thanks for sharing. And I agree…what’s with the fruit cocktail. It was always in the cupboard. Did it actually taste good? I don’t have a positive memory.

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 10:46 am

      I hated the big green grapes in fruit cocktail! I only liked the cherries, peaches and pears!

      Reply

  22. Monna on May 30, 2012 at 10:01 am

    I really related to this post for two reasons. One, my family always ate ambrosia salad at every special occasion when I was a kid. My grandma started it and my mom continued it. Also, I lost both my parents and my oldest brother to cancer about 6 years ago now when I was about 30. I can’t tell you the number of times I wish I had asked particular questions about life, my parents, and yes – my mom’s recipes while I had the chance. We have a lot of good memories connected to the kitchen. Thanks for the post. :)

    Reply

  23. Megan on May 30, 2012 at 10:02 am

    We make this salad, but use sour cream instead of cool whip. So delicious!

    Reply

  24. Sharon Peek on May 30, 2012 at 10:34 am

    My family too uses sour cream, but they also add halved maraschino cherries. My grandmother also made a variation that included pecans, coconut, mandarin oranges and sour cream plus a can of fruit cocktail. Though I am in my 60’s, I still remember those times together with fondness. Memories are the basis of all loving thoughts.

    Reply

  25. michele@onecountrychick on May 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Thanks for a neat post. My Gram passed away this past winter at the age of 90, and it is odd how your mind, at times, forgets that. I, too, have found myself thinking, we’ll have to ask Gram (although her hearing was pretty bad, so asking was difficult :) Same with looking at pictures – can’t ask anymore who those people were from back in 1940…

    Reply

  26. Stephanie on May 30, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I’m sure you’ll be the one to pass this recipe down to the future generations and *you’ll* be just like your grandmother.

    Reply

  27. Heather @ Bake, Run, Live on May 30, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I don’t care for pineapple, so whenever I make ambrosia salad, I add canned pears!
    My grandparents have been gone for quite a few years now, however, that doesn’t stop me from asking questions or seeking their guidance. I just have to listen for the answers.

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 11:33 am

      I love the way you put this, so true, and beautiful.

      Reply

  28. Ali B on May 30, 2012 at 11:15 am

    This is a really sweet post. I lost all of my grandparents by the time I was 12, but I’m glad to have a few memories of them still. One thing that I find especially comforting is to think of the things you do in your life that reflect your grandparents. For example, my mother’s mother made “Nana cookies” the way yours made ambrosia, so I feel as if I am channeling her whenever I duplicate that recipe. My love for swings comes from my mother’s father (who would push me on the swings for hours when I was a baby), my passion for science comes from my father’s father, and my love for gardening and crafting comes from my father’s mother. There is certainly a piece of your grandmother in you, and you emulate her every time you recreate one of her recipes :)

    Reply

  29. Jen of My Tiny Oven on May 30, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I lost my Grandma 15 years ago but she used to make a salad like this, but she called it Hawaiian Salad and instead of the cool whip, she used sour cream! It added a nice tangy flavour but you would never guess it was sour cream!
    I love old family recipes!

    Reply

  30. Char James-Tanny on May 30, 2012 at 11:54 am

    I make something really similar every summer (about once a week, sometimes more). I include maraschino cherries and use sour cream, not Cool Whip (like several others have said), and I use chunk pineapple, not crushed. And I only use about half as much coconut and mini-marshmallows. And I like how it changes it up when I add a can of fruit cocktail.

    When I’m feeling quirky, I add some cinnamon and nutmeg.

    Reply

  31. Ashley @ Wishes and Dishes on May 30, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Awww this post was so sweet. And I totally can relate to Italian Grandmas – You eat a huge plate of food that can feed an entire family and she says “You didn’t eat nothin’!”. Oh, and I love the cherry on top :)

    Reply

  32. Rachel on May 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I love this recipe! Thank you for sharing it and your story. Being a Pittsburgh girl myself, we actually referred to this as ‘funeral salad.’ I never thought twice about it until I was older and asked my grandmother in front of family friends if she was going to make it. “What does she want?” Asked the family friend.

    Have you ever heard it referred to as funeral salad?!

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      Hi Rachel, I have never heard of “funeral salad”!

      Reply

  33. Katie on May 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I love ambrosia, so much! Thanks for the recipe :) My grandmother always has cans of fruit cocktail in the pantry, it’s like a Grandma Requirement I think! Food never runs out at her house, either.

    Reply

  34. Justine on May 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    I think my mom used sour cream, too, and mayonnaise? All I know is that it was SO bad for you. But SO good. Thanks for a memory. :)

    Reply

  35. elisa on May 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I love your personal touches to your entries.

    I love ambrosia. it’s so delcious and refreshing. I love it mostly though because I finally found a dessert that I could make for my Sister in-law who has Celiac Disease and can’t have any wheat products. So no cupcakes, cake, etc. The Ambrosia makes her so happy!! and me too. :)

    Reply

    • J on November 27th, 2013 at 8:13 am

      Elisa, why don’t you just make her pumpkin pie without the crust? We do this all the time for dessert. Just mix up the filling for a pie and bake it in a buttered casserole dish. Still tastes great with a blob of whipped cream!

      Reply

  36. Georgina Cole on May 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    My mom has also been making Ambrosia since before I can remember (I was a kid in the 70s). She still makes it every Christmas using a combination of Cool Whip, fruit cocktail, coconut, maraschino cherries and fresh fruite (apples, bananas, etc.). My sister and I still love it but our husbands think it’s disgusting! I guess it’s all about what you grew up with :)

    Reply

  37. Kepanie on May 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Mahalo for posting this recipe. My Auntie J used to make this for me time to time as she knew I loved it. She’s gone now as we lost her too soon but I pinned this so I can make it one day and think of all the great memories of her.

    Reply

  38. Meghan @ After the Ivy League on May 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    That is so unbelievably heartbreaking about your father. I’m personally, very close to my dad and I can’t imagine ever losing him. Thanks for the beautiful reminder that we all need to make the most of our time with family.

    And the ambrosia salad looks delicious!

    Reply

  39. Ana on May 30, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Have you ever made the dessert salad similar to this, with the pistachio pudding? that’s what we always called Ambrosia Salad. I think sometimes it’s called Watergate salad. There’s a good frozen fruit salad recipe on Pinterest from an Atlanta department store’s tea room from a long time ago. I’d like to try it, and I’d like to try yours, too. I see why it kept popping up. :)

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Hi Ana, I have never had this, but saw it mentioned above as well. I’m going to have to try it!

      Reply

  40. Karin on May 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    My mother-in-law made this all the time except she also added cottage cheese and a small box of orange jello powder. She said it was a “complete” lunch that way!

    Reply

  41. Kate on May 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Ambrosia was always at our family dinners too. It was very popular. My mom made it just about the same but she added nuts on occasion.

    Reply

  42. Tiffany on May 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Interesting that you would mention this story with this salad. My grandma always made a salad very similar to this every Thanksgiving. She is still alive, but a year ago she fell and has a lot of memory problems now. One thing she discovered was she forgot her recipe for this salad! She was asked to bring it recently but couldn’t even remember how to begin. She never wrote it down, since she never guessed she’d forget it. I will have to try this and see if I can tweak it to what I remember. Thanks!

    Reply

    • Michelle on May 30th, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Aww, I am so glad that you might be able to use the recipe to help your grandma. Best wishes to her!

      Reply

  43. Vicki @ WITK on May 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Yep, my gram also had an endless supply of fruit cocktail in her cupboard. Must be a popular item among old ladies :) This ambrosia salad looks just like the one my gram made for us, great memories!

    Reply

  44. Paula @ Vintage Kitchen Notes on May 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    I relate to your reaching for them before thinking. It´s also a natural and sweet way to keep them close.
    I never had anything like your recipe. Here Ambrosia is a milk, sugar and egg mixture cooked a lot on the stove, that ends up like a cross between flan and bread pudding.

    Reply

  45. Angelyn on May 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    This looks really, really good! I’v never had Ambrosia before, but I must try it soon!

    Reply

  46. Suzanne - the Farmer's Wife on May 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Oh, I love ambrosia. Thanks for sharing your grandmother’s recipe. I’m pretty sure that “back in the day” she used sour cream or something else because Cool Whip wasn’t available.

    Our family also had to versions, one with the mandarin oranges, pineapple and coconut and another called “Edna’s Salad” that was made with vanilla pudding cooked with the juice from a can of fruit cocktail. The cooled mixture was then combined with the fruit cocktail and whipped cream was folded in. It’s fabulous. Yes, canned fruit is a grandma thing. My 91-year-old mother-in-law gets panicky if there’s no canned fruit in the pantry. I’d never buy it myself.

    Nineteen is pretty young to lose your father. The thing is, at that age you don’t even really know all the things you’d like to know.

    Reply

  47. Linda from NJ on May 30, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    what I wouldn’t give for just one more day with those in my life who have passed … it’s funny how the thoughts flood in when those people are gone, all the things you wish and want to know more about but never thought anything more about.

    Reply

  48. Martha in KS on May 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    My step-grandmother’s recipe was called Moron Salad because it was a cup of each ingredient. It called for pineapple tidbits and sour cream instead of whipped topping. Mom always made a separate dish without coconut for one of my sisters.

    Reply

  49. Ali on May 30, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I remember my sister and I loving this as kids. The perfect summer treat! Now I can make her some ;). Thanks!

    Reply

  50. Stephanie @ Eat. Drink. Love. on May 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    What a sweet post! This ambrosia salad is a perfect tribute to your grandmother!

    Reply

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