Thanks to an episode of Gilligan’s Island, I grew up with the wholehearted belief that Eating More Carrots = Having Amazing Eyesight. (Never mind the fact that the carrots on this particular Gilligan’s Island episode were grown from radioactive seeds that mysteriously washed ashore and gave Mary Ann superhuman seeing powers.) I wasn’t the only one who grew up with this belief, although I may have been the only one who believed it thanks to a Nick-at-Nite show.
Carrots may not give you the ability to see a boat that’s miles and miles away while you’re stranded on a deserted island, but they will give you a boost of vitamins that support healthy eyes. They make the perfect addition to refined-sugar-free cinnamon rolls. With beta carotene studded carrots, fiber-filled dates, a lightened up maple cream cheese topping, and not a refined sugar in sight, these Yummy Carrot Date Cinnamon Rolls will are the perfect way to both treat yo’ self and treat yo’ health.
What Makes These Cinnamon Rolls Extra Special
I have forever joked that instead of having a sweet tooth, I have sweet teeth. So, I love to fool my sweet taste buds by swapping refined sugars for better-for-you foods. Dates are not only sweet, caramely, and delicious, they are full of fiber, contain no fat, are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, including magnesium, vitamin B6, and potassium. Combined with a healthy dose of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla, dates make the perfect gooey filling for these slightly spiced, incredibly soft cinnamon rolls.
Now, what is carrot cake without carrots and cream cheese frosting? We’ve got them both here. Shredded carrots are added to the dough, which is spiced with cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice. (I’m here for my job as PR manager for pumpkin pie spice, which I firmly believe should be used in many things other than just pumpkin pie. We’re working on rebranding.) I love dough. I not-so-secretly want you all to make this recipe, if for no other reason than to experience the dough. It has the most beautiful texture and is pure joy to roll out.
Truth time: Cream cheese frosting is sometimes the main reason I eat carrot cake. Here, we’ve made it compulsively eatable but lightened up by subbing much of the cream cheese and butter you’d find in regular icing recipes with Greek yogurt. It’s creamy, tangy, and lightly sweetened by maple syrup, making it the perfect pair for the refined-sugar-free cinnamon rolls.
Making the Cinnamon Roll Dough
It’s no secret that I love the tangzhong method for baking bread, and we’re using it again here. You’ll start the dough by mixing a little of the flour and some of the milk together until you’ve got a thick paste. That gives us our tangzhong paste. I used unsweetened almond milk, but you could use dairy or plant-based milk. After you add the tangzhong paste to your mixing bowl, all you do next is add the remaining dough ingredients, minus the carrots. We’re adding these ingredients in a specific order to help cool down the tangzhong paste. A little bit of whole wheat flour is in the mix to give the bread a few extra nutrients and a lovely heartiness.
After you knead the spiced dough for a bit, you’ll add the carrots. The carrots will make the dough wet. Don’t be afraid! Nothing is ruined; all is far from lost. After the carrots are incorporated, add an additional quarter to half cup of flour. Your dough will be beautiful and smooth once again! You’ll knead it a bit more, and the end result is a slightly sticky, smooth dough. While your dough rests and rises, it’s time to make the date filling.
Refined-Sugar-Free Cinnamon Date Filling
I’m not going to lie, the cinnamon date filling is not a looker, but it is incredibly tasty. To make the filling, you will add your pre-pitted dates to a saucepan along with some water, cinnamon and vanilla. This mixture will sit over low heat for about 20-30 minutes, and you will mash it with a fork periodically until it is soft and spreadable. Next, it’s set aside to cool until the dough is ready.
There are two popular varieties of dates in the US–Medjools and Deglet Noors. I used Deglet Noors in the filling, which are a little firmer and less sweet than Medjool dates. You can use either, but if you use Medjool dates, I suggest reducing the amount of water added. You can always add more water later if it needs to be more spreadable, but because Medjools are softer and break down a little easier, they may not need it.
Putting the Dates in Carrot Date Cinnamon Rolls
Your dough has risen, your filling is ready, and it’s time to combine them (this is the best part). You’ll roll the dough into a rectangle/rectangle-ish shape, about 16 inches long and 12 inches wide. The dough will be sturdy but soft, not overly sticky, and studded with carrots. Spread your filling on the dough rectangle, leaving a space of about half an inch all the way around. There’s no perfect way to spread the filling–I start out with spoons or a spatula and usually end up using my fingers.
Starting at the long end closest to you, roll the dough. It should not be loose but not too tight. Trust me, though, it won’t be hard to find the Goldilocks just right.
Cut off the ends of the dough log, and cut the remaining log into 12 equal portions. (I’m not one to waste dough, so I usually bake the rejected dough ends in a separate pan.) It helps to 1) use a sharp knife or dough knife and 2) flour your knife to make clean cuts. Chances are, your rolls will look a little squished at this point. That’s okay! You can give them a gentle squeeze to reshape if necessary, or wait until the final rise and bake. They will magically round themselves during that process.
Once your rolls are snug in their parchment-lined 9 by 13 inch pan, they can be covered and rested again, and then baked. They won’t brown a lot, but you’ll know they are done when they are firm to the touch and lightly browned around the edges. You will top them with melted butter when they are out of the oven, then set them aside to cool. These rolls are best served at room temperature or slightly warm, so resist the temptation to dive in right away. While they are cooling, you can move on to the frosting.
Better-for-You Cream Cheese Frosting
The frosting comes together with just three ingredients: softened low-fat cream cheese, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, and maple syrup. Mix these three together until creamy, refrigerate until you’re ready, and, if you’re me, lick the beaters. Couldn’t be easier.
Slather the frosting on the cooled, decadent refined-sugar-free cinnamon rolls, and enjoy.
A Few Notes:
- Want to make overnight cinnamon rolls? No problem! After you have cut the dough log and placed the rolls in the prepared 9” by 13” pan, cover and place the pan in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, let the rolls come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Then, turn the oven on to preheat, giving them an extra 10-15 minutes rise.
- I would recommend storing the rolls and frosting separately and frosting just before eating.
- These refined-sugar-free cinnamon rolls are best served room temperature or slightly warm.
- If your date mixture feels like it could be softer or more spreadable after 20-30 minutes and all of the date pieces have broken down, add more water, a tablespoon at a time. Resist the urge to crank up the burner temperature. This process is best done over consistently low heat.
- I have always had good results with the rise using Cook’s Illustrated guide to turning your oven into a proof box.