Crazy for Coconuts

By Karen Palmer

We’re crazy for coconut. Crack into some this spring to give your baking game a tropical boost. Find recipes for coconuts in our 2018 March/April Issue, here

If you’re anything like me, your first memory of coconut was in one of those fun-size Mounds bars—not necessarily the prized pick of your Halloween haul, but a sweet, sticky, chocolate-coated treat nonetheless. Perhaps you later graduated to thick, custardy coconut cream pies, snow-white coconut cakes, or chewy, rounded macaroons. My memories of coconut veer toward the homey, like the Magic Bars my grandmother used to make for the holidays, a square concoction slathered with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with chocolate chips and a flurry of shredded sweetened coconut. 

So, you’ve undoubtedly seen packages of that shredded sweetened stuff in your grocery store’s baking aisle, but let’s back up for a second. What exactly is a coconut, anyway? To confuse matters slightly, in the most technical terms, it’s actually a fruit, a nut, and a seed, but what you’ll see in a supermarket is a drupe, or a seeded fruit. The consumed parts of the fruit are the meat and the milk, although the hard shells can be used to make charcoal and various craft products.

Despite its reputation in wholesome baked goods, coconut’s origins are a little more far-flung. It’s believed that the fruit originated in India and the islands of Southeast Asia, but because of its portability (and ability to float), coconuts have made their way to tropical regions around the globe. They were also a constant on trade routes—their exact travels a little too complicated to go into here. Nonetheless, 16th-century Europeans even believed the shells to hold magical powers.

These days, we still regard coconuts as somewhat magical. In recent years, the fruit has done something of a one-eighty, morphing from a dessert, candy, and tropical drink novelty into a veritable pantry powerhouse. First, coconut water had a boom back in the mid-2000s, its claims of superior hydration sending thirst-quenchers to guzzle it in droves. By 2016, the coconut water industry in the United States alone was valued at more than $2 billion by Technavio. (That’s a lot of liquid, friends.) And in recent years, coconut oil and coconut milk have become of-the-moment staples as consumers search for non-dairy alternatives for both their cooking and everyday needs, whether to satisfy a particular diet or simply eat a more wholesome diet.

The fact that the market has gone nuts (pun intended) means one thing for bakers: There are now endless coconut-based products to choose from, from flours to oils to butters, that you can use to add the slightest or most aggressive tropical flavor to your favorite baked goods.

The most obvious way is a handful of the old standby—sweetened or unsweetened shredded coconut that you can use to top anything from cookies to cakes to a piece of toast, should you be so inclined. Coconut flours, which are made from dried pulp left over after making coconut milk, may not add a ton of coconut flavor, but they are gluten-free and high in fiber. Coconut oil has been something of a godsend for vegans, providing an alternative fat with purported health benefits.

You will want to be careful with substituting in recipes, though. Coconut flour, for example, soaks up more water than regular flour, so you’ll have to use less in recipes and may want to increase the eggs. If you’re substituting coconut oil for butter, you’ll also have to be careful because of fat contents. Coconut oil is 100 percent fat compared to butter’s 88 percent, so you risk recipes coming out greasy if you use a one-to-one ratio. Your best bet may be to stick to recipes that call for coconut products rather than taking matters into your own hands. But if you do decide to experiment, that’s not a bad thing. After all, like the Mounds and Almond Joy folks would say, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.

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