Tuesday 30 June 2015

Coconut flour spoonbread

First of all, if the term "spoonbread" has you puzzled, let me introduce you: Spoonbread is a very old traditional American dish which is somewhat similar to corn pudding, but with a bit more substance - essentially a hybrid of cornbread and baked custardBecause of this custardy consistency, it is generally served with a spoon right out of the baking dish, which is presumably where the name comes from. The relative proportions of cornmeal, milk/cream, eggs, & butter can vary quite a bit from recipe to recipe, with some versions being almost like pudding and others with more of a soufflé texture. Some also add other ingredients such as cheese, sweet potato, or peppers. This version keeps it fairly simple, but with a twist - it's made with coconut flour and coconut milk instead of the traditional cornmeal and dairy milk! As with the conventional version, this is not a sweet dish per se; there is some subtle sweetness from the ingredients, but it's definitely savory enough to pair well with classic picnic foods like baked beans. 

That said, if you're wondering what the strawberry shortcake pictured above has to do with all this, that's one example of something you can do with leftover coconut spoonbread! So while it is not inherently sweet, it can be used for sweeter foods as well - I've included some suggestions for this at the bottom of the post. But first, let me back up a bit...

Recently I was invited to participate in a project nuts.com is putting together for the 4th of July, centered on American-themed recipes featuring coconut flour. This combination of themes intrigued me - especially the coconut flour part, as it's an ingredient I haven't used much and this seemed like a good opportunity to learn more. The learning process has been lots of fun! Coconut has some really interesting and useful properties that make it not quite like any other flour I've used.

Thus, I wanted to make something that would really feature the properties of coconut (as opposed to something that "just happens" to use coconut flour, or something that hides it under a bunch of other ingredients). Here's some of what I've learned through research and experimentation:

Coconut flour is usually made from coconut that has already been pressed for oil and/or milk - as a result, it's very absorbent and surprisingly lightweight, behaving almost more like a whole-grain flour than like a nut flour. In contrast to those other lightweight flours, however, much of its substance comes from fiber, not starch. You may see this mentioned a lot in the context of nutrition - some people select this flour on the basis of the high fiber content / low carbohydrate content / low impact on blood sugar. Personally, I tend to avoid focusing heavily on the potential health benefits of individual foods or nutrients - my approach to nutrition is a bit more...holistic, I guess? However, it's important to point out that these same traits that make coconut flour attractive nutritionally - specifically the type of fiber and the lack of starch - are also responsible for its unique baking qualities. For one thing, it won't taste pasty or gummy like some flours can in high-moisture formulas, and also doesn't stale (harden) the way many flours tend to. I am still in the process of learning the best applications for these properties, but I know these are two reasons I will definitely be using this flour more frequently! 

I do also want to bring up a different kind of health-related aspect: 

There are a lot of reasons someone might need or want to reduce or avoid certain grains, or even all grains, and this means even GF baking is frequently off-limits. Coconut flour seems to me to be more versatile than some other non-grain flours such as almond meal, and provides a slight natural sweetness without adding any other sweeteners. These qualities mean it's an especially useful ingredient for people who avoid grains or other high-starch foods, in addition to being an interesting flour in general. I'm always happy to find ingredients that not only make good food, but also make it available to more people who would otherwise be left out!

OK, so these are all good things. But what about the other theme? I was struggling to find a way to connect coconut to the 4th of July. I mean, when most people think of coconut, "America" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. 

...Except for one particular part of it. Back in 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, the event spurred a huge increase in already-popular "Hawaiian" and "tiki"-themed things - especially food. And yes, the quotation marks are there for a reason: This trend usually meant simply taking a normal sort of recipe and adding canned pineapple and/or shredded coconut (and then, for bonus points, arranging it in some kitschy way). So, I didn't manage to find much inspiration in those retro recipes.

However, I felt the larger concept - reinterpreting a traditional American food using distinctive ingredients - had potential.

Well, OK, it wasn't actually quite that simple. I went through a few different ideas and a great deal of frustration before that train of thought eventually led me to spoonbread, and learned some important things about ingredients along the way. (Which I will save for a different post because this one's already really long! The frustration with ingredients resulted from one of those earlier ideas, a very different coconut recipe which I still want to share but it needs a little polishing before I can post it. So I will share the lessons I learned along with that recipe. For now, I'll just say please check out the note about coconut milk at the bottom of the page before you start!)

Now, on to the recipe! 

Coconut Spoonbread

100 g coconut flour, divided
3 g (1/2 tsp) sea salt
320 g coconut milk, divided (**see note at bottom of post**)
40 g coconut oil
20 g arrowroot starch 
5 eggs, room temperature

1. Put 40 g of the coconut flour in a small pan and toast over low heat, stirring frequently. This brings out a biscuity, savory quality that really complements the subtle sweetness of the bread. Once it begins to lightly brown, remove from heat and combine with the other 60 g coconut flour. Mix salt into flour, & let flour cool before proceeding. 

2. Put the coconut oil into a mixer bowl and set aside. 

3. The silky texture of traditional spoonbread is due in part to recipes commonly involving partially pregelatinizing (pre-cooking) the starch in the cornmeal, either by cooking it in milk like mush or by stirring boiling liquid into it. Coconut flour, though, has none of this starch - that's
where the arrowroot comes in. The arrowroot is cooked into a sort of pudding which helps stabilize the mixture and keep the bread moist, in addition to contributing to the texture. 

To do this, put the arrowroot into a small bowl and stir in 20 g coconut milk to make a smooth paste, then heat the remaining 300 g coconut milk in a small saucepan, stirring constantly. (You can use the same pan you toasted the flour in - it's OK if there are a few crumbs of flour still in there.) When the milk is very warm, stir a couple spoonfuls of it into the arrowroot mixture, then add that mixture back into the saucepan, stirring constantly over low heat until thickened. Immediately add the milk-arrowroot mixture to the mixer bowl. 

4. Using paddle attachment, slowly increase speed so the oil does not splash out - then beat until the mixture is well combined. (I recommend doing it this way, rather than cooking the oil together with the milk, because I had trouble getting the arrowroot to incorporate smoothly with the latter method.)

Continue beating until the mixture is homogenous and sticking to the sides of the bowl, and it has cooled down enough that you can comfortably put your hand on the bottom of the bowl. Then add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. When all eggs have been added, beat on medium speed until it becomes noticeably light and foamy, but not too dry - about 2 minutes. Then add the coconut flour a little at a time, mixing until there are no lumps, but stirring gently so as not to deflate the mixture too much.

5. Gently pour the batter into an oiled casserole dish. Carefully spoon a little thinned coconut milk over the top and, if desired, grate a little nutmeg over it (optional, but traditional). 

Bake on center rack of oven at 375º F/190º C for 10-15 minutes (depending on how deep your baking dish is), then reset oven temperature to 350º F/175º C and continue baking another ~20 minutes, until the center is set but still soft. The bread will be puffy when you first remove it from the oven, as shown at the bottom of the post. 

It will fall a bit as it cools - that's OK.

Serve warm or cold. Leftovers should be refrigerated.  

Bonus "recipe" for shortcake: Cut cold leftover coconut spoonbread into slices. Add strawberries, peach slices, or other fresh summer fruit. Top with a big dollop of coconut cream, whipped cream, or thick yogurt. I've been eating this for breakfast! (To get coconut cream, simply refrigerate a can of full-fat coconut milk overnight - the thickest, creamiest part will rise to the top.)

**Note on coconut milk: Be sure to use a brand of coconut milk that does not have guar gum or other added stabilizers - ideally the only ingredients should be coconut & water! This is important for both the texture and flavor of the recipe. (Guess how I know.) You might have to go to an Asian grocery to find one without gum - that was the only place I could find it.
And this probably goes without saying, but definitely don't use that watery "milk substitute" stuff.

*Notes on substitutions

- Regardless of what kind of flour it's made of, the characteristic texture and rich flavor of spoon bread is very much influenced by eggs. I have not found a satisfactory egg substitute here - I think a different recipe would be needed for an eggless bread, as opposed to using a substitute. (That said, if you do come up with an eggless adaptation of this recipe, please let me know in the comments!)
- Because of the arrowroot in this particular recipe, this bread does contain some starch; however, it's still much lower in starch than cornmeal-based bread. I recognize that for some people, even this minimal amount of starch is a problem. If you want to try making an even lower-carbohydrate version, please let me know how it turns out!

All the opinions here are my own - I was not compensated for this post. I simply thought the project sounded fun!