Accidentally Vegan: Fresh and Light Lemon-Blueberry Scones

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I'm passionate about a lot of high-end ingredients, but I've never been a butter snob. My favorite brand is whatever's on sale at the supermarket, and I never shell out for expensive European-style butter. In fact, there are many occasions when butter isn't even what I want—particularly when I'm making baked goods containing fruit, in which those browned-butter notes can mask, rather than highlight, the fresh flavors I want to preserve.

This is especially true of lemon, which should taste tangy and bright. Oftentimes, butter gives lemon a toasty or nutty quality that makes its freshness seem faded or dull. (You'll notice there's not a drop of butter in the lemon curd I use for my lemon bars.)

Heavy cream can also mute the zestiness of fresh lemon, through both its tongue-coating richness and its high lactose content, which promotes more of that toasty browning in the oven. So, if I'm baking a batch of light and lemony scones—my favorite foundation for pairing with fresh blueberries—I'm naturally inclined to avoid butter and cream altogether.

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To avoid the lactose content that can subdue fresh lemon, I love replacing the milk-and-cream combo I favor in my chocolate scones with unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk—the kind you buy in a can, not the watery stuff sold in refrigerated cartons. Not only does coconut have a natural affinity for lemon, it tends to intensify rather than mellow an essential oil called citral; this is why even a small amount of lemongrass is easily noticed in a curry, but much more is needed to get a strong flavor in ice cream. What this means in practice is that I end up with a vegan scone recipe, not because I want it to be vegan but because I want it to be more delicious.

Now, coconut oil, whether refined and neutral or virgin and aromatic, isn't always a great substitute for butter. Its sharp melting point and lack of plasticity make it lousy in recipes that require creaming or rolling and folding. But it's phenomenal when the primary role of fat is to coat the flour and hinder gluten development, as is true for my Homemade Wheat Thins and, well, scones.

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Whether cold and firm or room-temperature and slightly soft, coconut oil isn't fun to handle. For that reason, I like making this style of scone in a food processor, which can quickly incorporate messy coconut oil into a dry and powdery meal.

From there, I transfer the dry ingredients to a bowl. At this point, you can also bag the mixture up and stash it on the shelf as a homemade scone mix, although if the temperature of your pantry warms up to above 75°F (24°C), you'll be better off storing it in the fridge.

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The dry mix is tossed with lemon zest and fresh blueberries—the smaller, the better. Big, fat blueberries are pretty to look at but loaded with water, which can make for bland and soggy scones. Here, small blueberries with tight skins provide more concentrated bursts of flavor, without derailing the texture of the finished product.

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Once the dough comes together in a ball, pat it into a seven-inch wheel, and pop it in the fridge while you preheat the oven. Because these scones aren't made with refrigerated ingredients, like butter and cream, the dough will be a little warmer, and therefore softer, than in a traditional scone recipe. A mere 15 minutes in the fridge will go a long way toward evening the score, helping these scones puff more and spread less in the oven.

Chilling the dough also produces cleaner slices in fruit scones, which can sometimes end up a squishy mess. With a cold dough and a sharp knife, you can slice the wheel into six perfectly sharp wedges.

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I like to sprinkle my chilled scones with a generous layer of toasted or turbinado sugar for a bit more flavor and crunch, especially since the dough itself contains less than a tablespoon of sugar. But if that's not your jam, feel free to leave them plain. Whatever the case, bake until the scones are puffed and golden on top, about 25 minutes in a 400°F (204°C) oven.

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Regardless of whether you'd typically reach for coconut milk and coconut oil when baking, the benefits these ingredients offer when you're making a batch of fruit-flavored scones are unparalleled—whether you follow my lead with blueberries, or decide on some other fresh fruit.

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