Season to Taste: Return of the Coconut
A favorite in tropical countries, for centuries milky-white coconut oil was praised for its versatility, shelf-stability and unique flavor. But then came the saturated-fat police who unfurled a highly effective smear campaign against the product, playing up its artery-clogging potential to the point where it virtually disappeared from American kitchens for decades.
As we became averse to saturated fats in the 1970s and 1980s, oils like coconut and palm were cast aside for olive and canola, the former the hero of the Mediterranean diet, the latter one of the most successfully marketed cooking ingredients in the last 20 years. But like all oils, even these workhorses have their drawbacks. Olive oil has a pronounced flavor that is great for roasting and stir-frying, but is limited as an ingredient in many desserts, where a sweeter, neutral profile is preferred. Canola, made from the rapeseed and less assertive in flavor, was initially lauded for its high smoke point—the temperature at which oil can be heated without burning. But later studies have found that once canola oil is exposed to high heat, it breaks down quickly, releasing free radicals that many scientists believe are unhealthy for consumption.
Enter coconut oil. As nutritionists look at its broader health picture and consumers continue to look for alternatives to nondairy staples such as margarine and vegetable shortening, this recently rediscovered kitchen gem is on the rise.
Like butter, margarine or shortening, it is solid at room temperature—hydrogenation without the factory. In an air-conditioned supermarket, it turns hard without any refrigeration. True, it contains saturated fat, but in its natural form it is absent the transfats created through hydrogenation—and is believed to contain the mid-chain fatty acids that, in moderation, contribute to a healthy diet.
It certainly contributes to a delicious diet. It has a delicate, toasted-nut flavor, buttery finish and is incredibly versatile for everything from stir-frying to spreading on bread. It has a respectably high smoke point and is good for sautéing vegetables—as long as you don’t mind its distinctive flavor.
Its real calling, though, is in desserts that call for butter, margarine or shortening. Coconut oil is perfect for pie crusts, cookies, scones and other baked goods (but this is not the case for processed, refined coconut oil).
But there are some caveats. When chilling dough made with coconut oil, beware: This oil is very temperature sensitive, so dough can go from pliant to rock hard in two minutes.
When buying coconut oil, look for an all-natural, unrefined product. In most supermarkets, the oil should appear cloudy and white on the shelf.
Below are two suggestions for Purim pastries using coconut oil. The traditional hamantaschen—here filled with walnuts and dates—gets a tasty update. And to start a new tradition, consider making lemon poppy seed scones. One of the classic methods for shaping scones—patting into a circle, then cutting into wedges—fits with Purim’s custom of eating three-sided foods to commemorate Haman’s ears (or hat, depending on whom you ask).
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 TBs unsweetened shredded coconut
3 TBs date syrup or honey
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup solid coconut oil (mash to soften slightly if necessary)
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Combine walnuts, coconut and date syrup in a small bowl and reserve.
2. Combine sugar, eggs and coconut oil in a bowl and mix until smooth, getting rid of any lumps.
3. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt and add to oil mixture one cup at a time, mixing by hand until a smooth dough forms.
4. Divide dough into three balls. Place each ball between two sheets of wax paper and roll to 1/4-inch thickness. Chill until firm but not rock-hard, 20-25 minutes.
5. Using a 2-inch cookie cutter, cut out circles, rolling scraps and reusing. Transfer circles to chilled baking sheets and add 1/2 tsp filling to center of each. Fold up edges to form triangles, pinching to seal.
6. Bake until golden, 12-14 minutes. Cool completely before serving.
Lemon Poppy Seed Scones
Makes 8 scones.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 TB baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 cup coconut oil, solidified slightly
Juice and zest of 1 large lemon
3 TBs poppy seeds
2 TBs chopped crystallized ginger
3/4 cup vanilla almond milk, plus more for brushing
1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Pulse flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.
2. Add the coconut oil and lemon zest; pulse until mixture is crumbly.
3. Transfer to a bowl and add lemon juice, poppy seeds, ginger and almond milk. Stir until just combined.
4. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and pat dough into a 9-inch circle. Using a floured knife, cut into 8 wedges, separating wedges slightly. Brush scones with almond milk. Bake until golden brown, 25-35 minutes.