Bunnie Cakes: Gluten-Free, Vegan Love Cakes by Family Gal Mariana Cortez

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Even though, or maybe because, I was always a really really tall girl, I've always gravitated toward tiny things. I love miniature doll furniture, pocket-sized notebooks, glitter, and as a child of the '80s, Shrinky Dinks.

So does vegan baker Mariana Cortez, who at 29, is the exact same age as I am. So when I spotted her Bunnie Cakes, miniature organic, vegan and gluten-free cupcakes, decorated with Christmas reds and greens, wrapped up with a little string, and stamped with a cute Japanimation-style cartoon chef girl on the counter at Apple A Day, it was like the abstract meeting of two girly vegan minds.

I involuntarily let out a gushy "awww" not many six-year-old girls could rival. I wanted to cradle the adorable little package to my chest, give it a bottle, and rock it to sleep

But seeing as there were people around, I decided to eat it instead. Not all six of the cakes. Just one 100-calorie treat ($1.50). I picked a guava-filled little number topped with a dollop of white icing and a bright red candy heart. (As Bunnie Cakes' signature, every single cake is topped with a heart.)

It was sweet, moist, firm, and gone in three doll-sized bites. Under the thick icing, made without refined sugar, there was a perfect little ball of guava inside the cake. I had to find out more about the woman behind these cruelty-free, health consciously constructed, cleverly branded, and delicious desserts.

Mariana Cortez is a mother of three very young children (one, two, and four years old). She was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, but educated in Miami.

In May 2009, her oldest son, then 18 months old, was diagnosed with delayed speech development. Among the solutions her doctor recommended was adopting a gluten-free, vegan diet for the child.

Having been a vegetarian for almost a decade, Cortez knew her way around a health food store. But she found that vegan and gluten-free options that were also palatable were hard to come by.

"It's really difficult to see an 18-month-old with a vegan and gluten-free diet. His second birthday was coming and we had no clue of where to get the cake or what to do for his birthday party. I found some of the cakes in Whole Foods, and they were horrible. The decorations were horrible. We can't give [guests] a piece of dry cake; it doesn't taste good and it doesn't look good," Cortez said.

So the young parents started researching ways to bake around their son's dietary restrictions. "I don't have a culinary degree. I know how to bake because my grandmother taught me to bake. But of course nothing she made was vegan. So we got some of her recipes and we replaced the eggs and the flour. We used gluten-free flour. And at that point, Bunnie Cakes was born."

At the time, Cortez, who has a degree in television production, was working, baking, and trying to raise her son at the same time. But after her cakes began selling well at local restaurants, she and her husband, who designed her Japanimation-style chef logo, decided to make the business a full-time venture. "I quit my job and dedicated my time to raising my four kids. Bunnie Cakes is my fourth kid," Cortez joked.

The cakes are now sold at 15 locations throughout Miami, including Juice and Java in South Beach, Aventura, and Boca, The Honey Tree, Garden of Eatin', and of course Apple A Day. The couple hopes to continue to expand the business and to open a retail space in the near future.

"My grandmother just passed away two weeks ago at 93 years old, and she was the inspiration and the source of this business," Cortez said. "She was an awesome woman and I feel really happy and glad that I get to do what she didn't get to do. She didn't have a business. She baked out of her house, which was great. But I get to take her ideas and her recipes, even though they weren't vegan, and turn it into a business. I feel happy and proud of what I've created."

If you decide to try a cake, keep your wits about you, and I don't just mean to savor the flavor. If you pull a plastic gingerbread man decoration out of your cupcake to find the word "winner" written on it, you win a baker's dozen of full-sized Bunnie Cakes cupcakes (normally $33) in any one of Bunnie Cakes' 25 flavors.

On top of their ready-made pastries available all around Miami, Bunnie Cakes bakes cakes and cupcakes to order. Check out the Bunnie Cakes website and blog, or call 786-268-9790.

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