New Ingredient, Familiar Foods: The Healthy Coconut Flour Cookbook (Review)


Coconut Flour Cookbook

The fine flour ground from dried coconut flesh is high in fiber and protein, low in carbohydrates, and gluten free.  According to writer, popular blogger, and personal chef Erica Kerwien, the flour can be used in a variety of foods and has many health benefits. It’s better for blood sugar and weight maintenance because of high fiber content, and it’s suitable for grain- and gluten-free diets.  In Kerwien’s new cookbook, The Healthy Coconut Flour Cookbook (Fair Winds Press, 2014), coconut flour is featured in recipes for cakes, cookies, and brownies, for sure, and also crepes, flatbread pizza, shepherd’s pie, and Mexican lasagna.

As a person with Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, Kerwien’s cookbook appealed to me for health reasons. I want to eat well and diversely while counting my carbohydrates and avoiding grains with gluten. Her cookbook’s attractive design and photography promised more — delightful, tasty, and even beautiful food.

Kerwien started experimenting with alternative carbohydrates in the early 2000s, when her young son became ill and before he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005. In an e-mail interview, she reported that, before her son’s illness, she had “always loved to bake and cook, but didn’t spend much time doing so… beyond salads, pasta, and brownies.” Changing her and her son’s diet to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) was “a huge paradigm shift” for her. The transition was “a gradual process, over months and years,” according to Kerwien.  Her first cookbook, Cooking for the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (Ulysses Press, 2013), offers a range of recipes – from sweet to savory – and includes a one-chapter primer on the diet, which was originally developed by a physician for people with celiac disease but later adopted for use by people with digestive disorders.

Like her SCD cookbook, Kerwien’s Healthy Coconut Flour Cookbook offers a variety of recipes that cover meals, snacks, and sweets. The presence of local strawberries in the market prompted a craving for a shortcake-type dessert. For a recent occasion, I made the Yellow Cake recipe and served it with whipped cream and berries as recommended. The recipe was simple to follow, with only eight ingredients and all of them common ones but for the coconut flour. (I used Bob’s Red Mill, available at my grocery store in the gluten-free baking supplies section.)

As I put the cake pan in the oven and watched the baking through the window, I was a little worried. It seemed wetter than regular batter, and, indeed, the measure of coconut flour (just ½ cup), as compared to the measure of other ingredients, was small. I baked it for a few extra minutes, cooled it on a rack, and removed it from the pan. It held together like a cake. In her “Baking Tips” section, Kerwien explains that coconut flour is a hydrocolloid, “absorbing moisture and binding ingredients together.” This may explain what I noticed as a wet look, and other bakers should anticipate that the experience of using coconut flour in recipes would be different from using wheat and other grain flours.

The taste and texture are also distinct from regular cakes. Kerwien’s aim in developing recipes for baked goods, she told me, is to “make it have great taste and texture in its own right, possibly even better.” One of my family members, who enjoyed the cake, called it “tasty and different” and “not sugary in a cake kind of way,” although I found it sweet enough. Everyone agreed that the Yellow Cake was a good base for fruit and cream. I would liken it to a sponge cake. Remarkably, there was no taste of coconut to the cake – the flavor disappears while cooking — which should encourage people who dislike coconut to try these recipes.

I cooked one of the book’s savory recipes for dinner, the Chicken Piccata. Both coconut and almond flour are used to coat the chicken before sautéing in oil and butter. The results superseded other recipes for the same dish in both taste and ease. My family found it delicious and far more delicate than the breaded chicken piccata often served in restaurants or prepared at home with chicken breasts dredged in egg and flour. We ate it with quinoa on the side instead of pasta.

Chicken Piccata

Other recipes I am eager to try are Scallion Pancakes with Soy Ginger Sauce, Cake Brownies, Garlic-Cauliflower Breadsticks, and Matzo Ball Soup. The pictures and Kerwien’s commentary entice.  For these and all the recipes, she suggests additions (frosting for the brownies!), side dishes, and substitutions. When I made the Yellow Cake, I followed her advice for reducing carbohydrates even more by replacing maple syrup with Stevia as sweetener. Readers following a vegan diet will appreciate Kerwien’s tips for substituting milk and egg ingredients with palm oil, coconut oil, and flaxseed mixed with water.

There are several recipes here in the “Breads” category: flatbread, cornbread, tortillas, and biscuits. What’s missing is a sandwich bread or roll, and Kerwien admitted in the interview that “good bread is hard to replicate, and even harder is a good bagel.” People who love sandwiches may want, therefore, to bake her tortillas or flatbreads.

Kerwien has tested “tricky or more complicated recipes with readers to make sure a recipe is reliable.” Even though ingredients and techniques may be new – a dairy-free Vanilla Crème frosting is made from soaked cashews and Medjool dates – readers are in Kerwien’s good hands. The Healthy Coconut Flour Cookbook has an internal coherence to it, and a staple recipe may be tweaked for variety or even used in a more complex recipe as a base. Tips and instructions appear in places where they’ll have most relevance to readers.

The book is thoughtfully written and designed, the recipes are tested and doable, and the food is good for your health and your palate. Kerwien told me she “make(s) food to enjoy” and is “happy when others enjoy them as much as I do.” The Healthy Coconut Flour Cookbook conveys that spirit: this is food, and cooking, to enjoy.

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