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

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Grandma's Ambrosia Salad


  • 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


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

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