When my husband, Landon, was in kindergarten, someone’s mother brought a batch of coconut cupcakes to share with the class to celebrate her child’s birthday. Landon had never had coconut before, but he knew a thing or two about baked goods, and he positively drooled over the mounds of fluffy white frosting and clouds of coconut. When his turn came, he eagerly stuffed a bite in his mouth, and then proceeded to experience one of the biggest culinary disappointments of his little life. It seemed someone had accidentally switched out his precious cupcake with a mouthful of dry grass, possibly mixed with bits of shredded string. After he was done retching and spitting (I’m sure the mom and teacher just loved that), he was left with one resounding sentiment: I hate coconut.
Finally, three decades later, comes coconut’s redemption. This recipe was inspired by a bag of coconut flour I spied in the baking aisle at Whole Foods. Coconut flour is made of finely ground dried coconut, so it carries the fruit’s sweet aroma without the fibrous texture. Apparently, it also transforms fairly good cake into something so ridiculously moist that you feel the need to talk with your mouth full in order to urge others to eat it too: “Seriously, mmfff, you have got to try this!”
This recipe started life years ago as one from a King Arthur Flour catalogue, but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original now. Coconut flour requires extra liquid, so I figured I might as well stick with the theme and use coconut milk. I think the combination of the two is what is responsible for the tender, almost-melting texture — although frankly, after the first bite, you won’t really care. Their diminutive size and the tang of the cream cheese frosting make it a little more reasonable to finish the tops with a drizzle of caramel, in which I also substituted coconut milk for the regular old cow kind.
You would think something with coconut products present in triplicate would be absolutely redolent with its flavor, but somehow these cupcakes manage to come out only barely scented of the stuff. I did feel the need to nod to the coconut flour in the recipe name, but you really wouldn’t know it was there if I didn’t tell you. In other words, this is the perfect recipe for people conditioned by years of shredded coconut with the mouth-feel of lawn clippings. As an added plus, coconut flour has more fiber and vitamins than wheat flour, and it’s a great alternative for people who eat gluten-free. Something that tastes better than it should, transforms the food it’s in, and is good for you to boot: that’s the kind of culinary alchemy that keeps me happily inventing and baking. Now, seriously, mmmfff, you have got to try these… ;)
Island Devil’s Food Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting and Coconut Caramel Drizzle
makes about 90 mini-cupcakes
For the cake:
3/4 c. unsalted butter, softened (12 Tbsp. or 1 1/2 sticks)
1 c. demerara sugar (also called turbinado or raw sugar, see these recipe notes for more info)
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 tsp. salt, not coarse
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. vanilla bean paste or real vanilla extract
2 tsp. espresso powder (optional, enhances the depth of the chocolate flavor)
1 c. all-purpose flour (I prefer King Arthur)
1 c. coconut flour
1 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
one 14 oz.-can coconut milk plus enough regular milk to equal 2 1/2 cups
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened (3/4 stick)
4 c. powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. salt, not coarse
1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or real vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. coconut milk or regular milk
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 c. demerara sugar
1 c. coconut milk
1/2 tsp. salt, not coarse
Oven 350F. Use electric mixer to blend butter, demerara sugar, granulated sugar, salt, baking soda, vanilla, and espresso powder until light and fluffy, 5 or 6 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula once or twice to be sure it blends evenly. Meanwhile, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together both types of flour and cocoa and set aside.
Add the can of coconut milk to a large measuring cup, then add regular milk until it totals 2 1/2 cups. Now whisk them together until evenly mixed. (The coconut milk always separates in the can. Don’t let this put you off, it’s just the water coming out of the thicker part of the fruit puree.) Add a third of the flour mixture to the cake batter, then mix well. Add half the milk, then mix again. Alternate this way until all ingredients are completed blended into a thick, fragrant batter.
Line a mini-muffin tin with paper liners, then put one teaspoon of batter in each cup. (I use a small ice-cream scoop for this.) Bake mini-cupcakes for 12-13 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with the faintest hint of moist crumbs. Let cool in pan for one minute, then transfer to baking rack to cool completely. Repeat as needed until all batter is baked, about four batches for my 24-cupcake pan.
While the cupcakes bake, make the caramel. Cook the butter, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat, whisking constantly, until sugar melts (3-4 minutes). Carefully pour in the coconut milk — it will bubble and splash furiously, so be careful that you don’t get burned. Some of the melted sugar may solidify in the bottom of the pan or on the whisk. Every time I make caramel, this is the moment that I have doubts, but trust chemistry and soldier on. Keep stirring constantly as it simmers over low heat for seven minutes (use a timer, no skimping). The caramel will smooth and thicken. Turn off the heat, stir in the vanilla, and leave in the pan to cool.
While the caramel and cupcakes cool, it’s time for frosting. Put the butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and salt in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until lighter and thoroughly mixed, 2-3 minutes. Add half the sifted powdered sugar and mix well. Add coconut milk, mix again, then last half of sugar. Mix until completely combined to a creamy spreading consistency.
Gently frost cooled cupcakes, leaving a bit of a well in the top where the caramel can pool. Drizzle the frosted cupcakes with cooled caramel, then top with chocolate sprinkles or toasted coconut shavings as desired. I made these small for three reasons: I love tiny baked goods; these are very rich; and smaller servings help my family better control portion size. It’s hard to walk away from half a regular-sized cupcake, but having one or two of the minis feels like plenty.
If you prefer a traditional-sized cupcake, I would estimate baking time at around 25 minutes, but start testing a few minutes before to be sure they don’t dry out. If you want to make this recipe gluten-free, use 2 cups coconut flour (instead of 1 c. coconut flour, 1 c. all-purpose) and add an additional 1 c. of either coconut milk or regular milk; bake and assemble as directed above.