Typically, I’m not one to put vegetables in a cake.
Although, I’m also not someone who really eats cake, to begin with. Unless it’s made of crab. When it comes to anything that remotely resembles carrot cake, however, count me right in.
Now’s the part where I tell some fantastical story about a carrot cake from my childhood that was so remarkable, it still makes me catch my breath when I think about it. A decadent dessert so masterfully moist that I can still taste each buttery, brown sugar-y morsel melting right onto my tongue.
But, alas, I don’t have such a tale to tell…
Just kidding. Of course, I do.
Of the many memorable dining-out experiences with my family over the last thirty-plus years, there’s only one which conjures up cake. At Zest Café & Home Art, a North Raleigh gem which still exists today, my dad, mom, sister and I would fork to the death over who got the last bite of the last course.
This eclectic bistro was known for its locally-sourced ingredients (long before it was “the cool thing to do”) and funky adjacent knick-knack shop and bakery. Everything that came out of this kitchen—from the earth-shattering good Caesar dressing to the balsamic-roasted portabella sandwich with creamy artichoke spread on homemade focaccia—was simply magnificent.
And although only one of us has a serious sweet tooth (lookin’ at you, mom), dinner was never complete without a to-go box of Zest’s famous carrot cake.
Each rich slice, tucked neatly in its charming white package, featured abundant layers of silky cream cheese and feathery brown cake laced with warm, spicy cinnamon and sweet carrot shreds. Are you drooling?
And since I’m someone who typically prefers a fourth piece of pizza over a bowl of ice cream—you better believe this must have been some damn good cake to have stuck with me all this time. Speaking of not craving sugary confections, it can be a struggle to satisfy that minor urge when all you want is a hit of something sweet.
Restaurants don’t let you order a “bite” of cake and apparently it was frowned upon to eat off of strangers’ plates even before 2020 graced us with a global pandemic. Rude.
So when I can’t stop my brain from spinning over those soothing, spiced, carrot cakey flavors—I turn to these muffins.
The muffins then turn to me and say, “Ahh! Don’t eat me!
Just kidding, again. They know its their purpose in life to be blissfully consumed.
This recipe pays tribute to that zesty carrot cake from Zest, but don’t worry, I tinkered with it to achieve some Fanny flair. I’m a sucker for all-things tropical-themed and luckily happen to have a sister who’s made her home on the exotic island of Oahu. Though I can’t wiggle up a Hawaiian palm tree anytime the desire strikes, I can certainly crack open a can of coconut milk anytime I like.
Pay attention. This next part is important.
You often give canned coconut a turbulent shake before popping its lid, but that’s not the case here. The solids that reside on top are known as the coconut cream, while the liquid sitting quietly underneath is the coconut water.
The cream cheese filling for these muffins gets its paradise pick-me-up from the coconut cream and the regular water in the muffin’s batter is replaced with ultra-hydrating coconut water. Anything left in the can should go directly into the nearest pina colada.
Between the earthy cinnamon, caramel-like brown sugar, coconut-scented cream cheese, and juicy pineapple (which helps to keep the muffins super light and airy)—every bite of these baked morning handhelds is a carrot cake-inspired mouthful of happiness.
And that takes the cake. I mean, the muffin.
Cream Cheese-Stuffed Coconut Carrot Cake Muffins
Turn the tropical meter to ten with these decadent, coconut-infused muffins. In this recipe, all the warm, familiar flavors of carrot cake come together (with the help of a velvety cream cheese filling) and are transformed into a morning masterpiece that will leave you wanting seconds. Keep reading for the recipe.
- 6 ounces cream cheese, softened
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar plus 2 tablespoons, divided
- ½ cup coconut cream (the solids on top) from canned full-fat coconut milk (reserving the liquid from the rest of the can)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, divided
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- ¼ cup half-and-half
- 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
- ¾ teaspoon coarse salt
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup crushed fresh pineapple
- ⅓ cup coconut oil, melted
- 2 cups grated carrots (about 2-3 large carrots)
- ½ cup unsweetened shredded toasted coconut, divided
- Start by preparing the filling. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cream cheese, 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar, the coconut cream, ½ teaspoon of the vanilla extract, the powdered sugar, and heavy cream until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate until ready to use and then place in a piping bag (or a Ziploc bag with a small opening in one of the bottom corners).
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and grease a standard 12-well cupcake pan (or place paper liners inside of the wells).
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, the remaining ⅓ cup of the sugar, the brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, pineapple, ¾ cup of the reserved canned coconut water, remaining ½ teaspoon vanilla, and coconut oil. Slowly incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry and then fold in the carrots and ¼ cup of the toasted coconut.
- Evenly drop the batter into the muffin cups until they’re about ¾ of the way full. Pipe even amounts of the cream cheese-coconut filling into the center of each one.
- Bake for 10 minutes and then sprinkle the top of the muffins with the remaining ¼ cup toasted coconut. Continue baking until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake part (not the filling) comes out clean, about another 10 minutes.
- When the muffins are cool enough to handle, transfer them to a wire rack, and cool to room temperature until the filling has slightly hardened.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 361Total Fat: 19gSaturated Fat: 15gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 47mgSodium: 327mgCarbohydrates: 43gFiber: 3gSugar: 20gProtein: 5g
- Toasted walnuts and raisins are the usual suspects when it comes to sprucing up carrot cake, but if you’re looking to change things up—pecans and dried cranberries add a tart holiday twist to these muffins.
- For a sweet and sour garnish that offers a bright hint of orange, keep an eye out in your local supermarket for candied carrots.
- When fall creeps around the corner, swap out the pineapples for canned pumpkin and up the muffin’s spice game with clove and cardamom.
Step by Step Instructions with Photos:
Step 1 – Prepare the Coconut-Cream Cheese Filling
Start by preparing the filling.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the cream cheese, 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar, the coconut cream, ½ teaspoon of the vanilla extract, the powdered sugar, and heavy cream until thoroughly combined.
Refrigerate until ready to use and then place in a piping bag (or a Ziploc bag with a small opening in one of the bottom corners).
Step 2 – Mix the Dry Ingredients
Preheat the oven to 400°F and grease a standard 12-well cupcake pan (or place paper liners inside of the wells).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, the remaining ⅓ cup of the sugar, the brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt.
Step 3 – Mix the Wet Ingredients
Melt the coconut oil in a small microwave-safe bowl.
In a separate small bowl, whisk together the eggs, pineapple, ¾ cup of the reserved canned coconut water, remaining ½ teaspoon vanilla, and coconut oil.
Step 4 – Incorporate the Wet Ingredients into the Dry
To toast the coconut, place the unsweetened flakes on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F, tossing once halfway through, for 5-8 minutes until golden-brown.
Slowly incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry and then fold in the carrots and ¼ cup of the toasted coconut.
For more texture, you can also add in ½ cup raisins and ½ cup toasted walnuts at this point.
Step 5 – Fill the Muffin Cups and Pipe in the Coconut-Cream Cheese Filling
Evenly drop the batter into the muffin cups until they’re about ¾ of the way full.
Pipe even amounts of the cream cheese-coconut filling into the center of each one (you can also make a small indentation in the top of the muffin with the back of a spoon as a holder for the filling).
Step 6 – Bake and Garnish the Muffins
Bake for 10 minutes and then sprinkle the top of the muffins with the remaining ¼ cup toasted coconut. Continue baking until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake part (not the filling) comes out clean, about another 10 minutes.
When the muffins are cool enough to handle, transfer them to a wire rack, and cool to room temperature until the filling has slightly hardened.
Do you know the Muffin Man?
2020 has been the year of wearing masks, and when these muffins came to the party in their best carrot cake disguise—they were promptly invited in.
There’s a lot of debate over how to properly permeate cream cheese into muffin batter, and that’s the type of politics I can get on board with. Whether you freeze your filling and slide the cold cylinders through the middle, or simply squeeze via pastry bag until the muffin is stuffed to your heart’s desire, there’s only one rule:
Let. Them. Cool.
I know it’s tempting to dive directly into fresh-out-of-the-oven muffins, but if the gooey cream cheese-coconut layer doesn’t have a chance to reharden, it’ll spill out right onto your sweatpants.
No one likes a cream cheese waster. Or someone with dirty sweatpants.
Inject a little more magic into your mornings by baking up these other sweet treats:
The ingredients list has half and half but the instructions say to mix in the heavy cream. In my experience heavy cream is a reference to heavy whipping cream not half and half. Which one is actually used in the recipe?
In this recipe, you could use either half and half or heavy cream. Personally, I would reach for heavy cream. Either way, from a chef standpoint, it won't make a large enough difference to see a change in flavor or texture to be noticeable.