German Chocolate Cupcakes: Or (An Unexpected Meditation on the Disappointment of Healthy Baking)

These cupcakes were a year in the making.

By that I mean I thought about making them for a year. Really. I don't usually wait that long to try new recipes, but these are not just your everyday, over-sweetened, butter-laden cupcakes. They are cupcakes that are supposed to make you feel great about eating a cupcake. Sounds cool right? Well, maybe?

See, I love baked goods. Like a lot. Enough that I had to finally admit to myself in my late 20's that I do in fact have a sweet tooth. It hides in the background as I easily turn down candy, soda, and sickly sweet cocktails, only to come raging out when I’m anywhere in the vicinity of sugar mixed with butter and flour. This means that if I’m going to get the idea in my head to make cupcakes without any of these things, I’m really going to have to convince myself there is a good reason to do so. When you are someone who consumes kale with a frequency that makes your doctor weep with joy, it’s kind of hard to find a good reason, since “Because it’s healthy” doesn't quite matter so much*.  And also, doesn't that miss the point of cupcakes? Where's the joy  when it's not immediately followed by regret and a violent sugar crash?

*Sounds medically valid to me! Doctor friends can weigh in.

Cupcake prebake.jpg

So what was my reason to finally make them? Mostly just that I was tired of thinking about making cupcakes. I have this insanely long list of ideas for dishes I want to make, and it’s lately become a source of stress in my life. I sit in my cube at work and go over this list (uh, during lunch, of course) and I get so annoyed that I’m freezing at the office and not home in my kitchen making these things. I decided to check these off the list once and for all, for my own sanity. That's normal, right?


I first came up with the idea for these cupcakes after trying a raw “caramel” dip. It didn't really taste like caramel, but what it reminded me of was German chocolate frosting, if you added pecans and coconut to it, and I could not get that idea out of my head.  

The cake was another issue. I was set on using this delicious, magical, dates-somehow-become-caramel frosting that was even arguably healthy. I was hesitant to undo that by adding back in all the missing "bad" ingredients. In this case, the frosting has no refined sugar, so it would be awesome if the cake didn't either, right? Yes, and I found plenty of recipes out there for chocolate cakes that, while maybe not the healthiest thing you could eat, won’t be blamed for any metabolic diseases later in life. Problem solved!

So, I finally made them, after settling on a cake recipe I thought would work, not surprisingly from the same source as the frosting. I adjusted the recipes to what I wanted and added them together into something I hoped would be even greater than the sum of its parts.

The result was…not life changing. The frosting was delicious and the cake was delicious and yet together, they didn't mesh.   The cakes were super dense and adding frosting to them was like making cupcakes out of fudge. It tasted great but I just wasn't into it. And then too there’s the fact that I made them right before coming down with a stomach bug**, and now there’s an association there in my mind.

**Is there a sadder sight than tossing perfectly tasty home-made cupcakes in the trash because you realized your food poisoning was probably actually your co-worker’s stomach flu and you don’t want to be responsible for passing it on? 

So I tried again, this time with my favorite go-to chocolate cupcake recipe, which, while not as virtuous as the fudgy cake, is vegan so not totally in violation of the spirit of this endeavor. And I did like these better, and they were proclaimed delicious by everyone else who tried them, but I still wasn’t in love with them. These cupcakes also had a tendency to topple over, since the cake was a little bit too light and airy to support the frosting.

Maybe the real problem was me, and what I really wanted out of these. To me, baked good junkie that I am, as much as I want to try baking healthier options, I’m never going to convince myself that these are just like the real thing. They aren’t.  Generally, I find it best to appreciate these alternatives for what they are, not what they are trying to be, because they do have merits on their own. It’s exactly what I tell people when they complain that a veggie burger isn’t a replacement for a meat patty. Maybe it’s better to stop thinking of it that way. It is what it is, not what it’s trying to be, so don’t force it. If at the end of the day what you really want is a hamburger, a veggie burger won’t cut it. And if what you’re really craving is a German Chocolate cupcake, this maybe isn’t the recipe for you.

Would I make them again? I don’t know. Maybe I'll let this one go. One of my favorite things about cooking is that the possibilities are endless. You can come up with experiments or alter recipes and you might get exactly what you were looking for or nothing close. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter. For me, the point is just to get in the kitchen and try. 

I won't go so far as to call these a failure, because they were pretty tasty. They just didn't live up to what I was imagining in my mind. So, if my non-enthusiasm above hasn't dissuaded you, here's the recipe!

Fudgy Chocolate Cupcakes

Adapted (barely) from My New Roots. I decided non-organic cocoa powder was okay, since I didn't have any. I also made this cake into 12 mini cupcakes, and was happy about that decision as these came out intensely rich. It affected cooking times and from what I can tell, possibly also the final texture of the cake, as these were dense but not exactly wet as described in the original recipe. 

4 oz. high quality dark chocolate
1 ½ Tbs cocoa powder
7 oz. (half a 14 oz. can) garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 eggs 
1/4 cup date syrup (or maple syrup)
1/4 tsp. baking powder

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease a 12-cup mini muffin tin.
  2. Melt dark chocolate over a double boiler on the stove or in short bursts in the microwave. Set aside to cool slightly.
  3. In a blender, puree beans, eggs, date or maple syrup, cocoa and baking powder until very smooth.
  4. Add melted chocolate and blend until fully mixed.
  5. Spoon batter into muffin pan and bake 10-15 minutes, when inserted toothpick comes out clean. A good visual cue these are done is that the tops split and crack.
  6. Let cool completely on a wire rack, then chill in the refrigerator until ready to frost.


  • I halved this recipe from the original, so some of the amounts are a little awkward. It’s easily doubled if you want more cupcakes. I found a dozen mini cupcakes to be plenty, given how rich the cake is.
  • The original recipe notes that a toothpick inserted at the end of baking will not come out clean. My toothpick came out clean, no doubt due to the smaller baking size.
  • When these first came out of the oven the tops were high and domed, but flattened out as they cooled. It’s a dense cake, so I would assume this is normal.


German Chocolate Frosting

Also barely adapted from My New Roots. I halved the recipe and added the pecans and coconut to the mix. I also used pecan butter made from roasted pecans, so my version no longer qualifies as “raw”.

1 cup pitted Medjool dates
1/8 cup pecan butter, either store bought or homemade (recipe below)
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
¼ to ½ tsp. sea salt (to taste)
½ Tbs vanilla bean paste
soaking water as needed
½ cup toasted coconut flakes
½ cup toasted pecans, chopped

  1. Soak dates for at least 4 hours in water.
  2. Drain, reserving about a quarter cup of soaking water.
  3. Add dates to food processor with pecan butter, lemon juice, salt, and vanilla bean paste. Blend until mixture is very smooth. Add in soaking water a teaspoon at a time if needed, although this is supposed to be frosting so mixture should be thick but spreadable.
  4. Fold in coconut and chopped pecans.
  5. Spread generously on chilled cupcakes.


2-Ingredient Pecan Butter

You can use another neutral tasting nut butter in the recipe, such as almond, but this stuff was amazing. I got a little more than ¼ cup of nut butter, so if you aren’t doubling the frosting recipe, you’ll have plenty left to spread on toast and top with honey. You won’t regret it.

1 cup pecans
Sea salt, to taste

  1. Toast pecans in a skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 8-10 minutes, tossing frequently so they don't burn.
  2. In a food processor, pulse the pecans until crumbly and a paste begins to form. Add sea salt to taste, and continue to puree until mixture is smooth and buttery, scraping down the sides of the food processor as needed. Be patient, it will take a few minutes but magic will happen.