Ambrosia, in Greek and Roman mythology, was the food of the gods, and eating it is what made them immortal. In culinary terms, it is a type of fruit salad first popularized in the American South.
This dish appeared under its current name in cookbooks in the latter part of the 19th century. As fresh citrus fruit became easier to obtain year-round and nationwide, ambrosia also gained popularity across the US. It is especially popular as a fresh dessert alternative during the holidays.
At its simplest, ambrosia is a citrus fruit salad, made with sugar and sprinkled with coconut. There are as many recipes for the dish as there are cooks who prepare it, and no two recipes are quite the same. While the salad originally almost always contained grated coconut, it can be omitted from recipes for those who do not care for it. Some recipes call for the fruit salad to be mixed with gelatin and molded, but this method has never been very popular.
The citrus fruits included in an ambrosia recipe vary according to the tastes of those preparing and eating it. It usually includes orange slices — sometimes Mandarin oranges — tangerine sections, and perhaps tangelo sections. It may or may not include grapefruit. Salad made with grapefruit, of course, would need more sugar to be palatable than that made without it. Some cooks add a little orange or apple juice to the recipe for a slightly moister mixture. Others might add cognac or another fruit-flavored liqueur for extra flavor.
The amount of sugar and coconut added is strictly up to the cook. Some like a sweeter flavor than others, or more coconut. If children will be eating the salad, the liqueur is omitted and sometimes miniature marshmallows are added. They will soften in the salad and add extra sweetness and texture that children may prefer.
Ambrosia is best when served the same day it is prepared. It will often maintain its quality for several hours, but making the salad the day before serving it is not recommended. The sugar will cause the fruit to release too much juice and the fruit may "turn." It can be served before a meal, as a salad, or afterwards, as a dessert.