Every baker loves a good redemption story, especially when it involves fat. I've raptly watched as coconut oil, a former enemy of the medical establishment because of its saturated fat content, has recently become the darling of the natural foods set because it contains fatty acids linked with a rise in "good" HDL cholesterol. The jury's still out on its actual health benefits, but I found myself interested in how coconut oil might fit into my baking life.
There are a few different types of coconut oil on the market. Refined hydrogenated coconut oil, the least appealing choice, acquires unhealthy trans fats during chemical processing. This is the product, responsible for making movie theater popcorn a dietitian's nightmare, that gave coconut oil a bad name in the first place.
The healthier options are expeller-pressed and cold-pressed (also called "virgin" or "extra-virgin") oils, which are processed without chemicals so they have no trans fats and retain some of the coconuts' nutrients. Expeller-pressed coconut oil is refined to remove its coconut scent and flavor. It is a good substitute for solid vegetable shortening in recipes that require a fat with a neutral flavor, one that gives baked goods a flaky texture. I usually make pie dough with a combination of butter and shortening, which is partially hydrogenated. This Thanksgiving I might use butter and coconut oil for a trans-fat-free crust.
But the real allure of coconut oil for the creative baker is its potential to add tropical flavor to baked goods. I purchased some cold-pressed oil to see what it could do in a favorite recipe for scones. When I opened the jar, I wasn't disappointed with its mild but decidedly coconut-y fragrance.
Coconut oil melts at a relatively low 76 degrees (butter melts at 90 degrees; vegetable shortening melts at 115 degrees). It was a warm day, and I noticed that the oil was almost fluid. The fat in this recipe has to help the scones to a good rise, but it can do so only when solid. Water trapped in solid bits of fat turns to steam in the oven, expanding and causing the dough to puff up. If the fat melts before the scones are baked, that water separates from it and escapes before it can do its job. So I measured out my coconut oil and then transferred it in small spoonfuls to a bowl, which I placed in the freezer for a little while. If your kitchen is cool and your coconut oil is solid, you can skip this step. But chilling the oil won't hurt, and will ensure that it functions properly in the oven.
Unsweetened coconut added chewy texture. To moisten the dough, I used buttermilk, which lent my scones a tangy note. For a dairy-free version, you could substitute soy milk or even light coconut milk. After gently mixing and shaping my scones, I baked them until they were just golden on their undersides. They were rich but greaseless, with a clean coconut flavor.
1/2 cup cold-pressed coconut oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate
2/3 cup buttermilk, plus an extra tablespoon or two if necessary
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Cut the coconut oil into small bits, place it in a small bowl, and set it in the freezer while you gather your remaining ingredients.
3. Whisk together the whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the chilled coconut oil and, with an electric mixer, mix on low speed until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the coconut and chocolate. Stir in the buttermilk on low speed until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Do not overmix.
4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide it in half. Shape each half into a 6-inch disk. With a sharp chef's knife, cut each disk into 6 wedges. Place the wedges ½-inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake the scones until they are firm and beginning to color on the bottom, 12 to 15 minutes. Let them cool for 5 minutes and serve warm. Makes 12 scones.