Friday, August 31, 2007

Vegan Anise Agave Cupcakes

Let me explain the inspiration for these cupcakes:

I am 10 years old and I've just walked into the local Italian bakery in East Boston, Massachusetts. The smell is of anise, sesame, rum, blueberries and sugar. I look at the strawberry cheesecakes, reserved only for birthdays in my family. These cheesecake are softer than the New York kind, almost fluffy, and covered in fresh strawberries and gooey strawberry glaze...pretty much the best thing about birthdays when you're 10 years old.

The girl behind the counter slices the scali bread in the big metal slicer, and then hands slices of room-temperature Sicilian pizza to the kids for lunch. The cheese is one solidified layer over a cooled tomato sauce. The Neapolitan pastries are so pretty, with their vanilla and chocolate ribbons intertwined over layers of flaky pastry and boiled custard cream. One of my favorites, the half-moons, beckon me from their case. Otherwise known as "black and whites", these soft, cake-like cookies are frosted with chocolate icing on one half and vanilla on the other, giving them their lunar name.

I'm probably in the bakery because we're buying pastry to take to my grandmother's house, or maybe my dad feels like treating us on a Sunday. At any rate, getting a pastry is a special occasion. Then, I see them, the bags of snowball-shaped cookies covered in thin white icing and rainbow sprinkles. Some are flavored with lemon or vanilla, but my favorite is anise. They sit next to towers of similarly flavored pizzelles: flat, waffle-like cookies that crumble to your touch.

I pick up the bag of anise snowball cookies and smell it. Inhaling the sweet, licorice aroma is pure heaven. My dad sees my joy and takes the bag from me, bringing it to the cash register. As we leave the shop I spring out into the sunshine and run through the parking lot. I can't wait to get home and eat my cookies. It's going to be a great day.

When you read my story, you understand my thoughts behind these cupcakes. The agave cupcakes in VCTOTW are golden and full-flavored, yet receptive to any additional flavors to be layered into them. Light agave nectar is a wonderful sugar alternative and is healthier than refined, white sugar. It's natural, but doesn't have the same effect on the body as white sugar, so it's better for diabetics and those on low-glycemic index diets like South Beach, the Zone, etc. I did use confectioner's sugar in the icing, but the amount of icing is so small, it is a much lower-calorie alternative than other frosted cupcakes, and to me, taste amazing.

For those who haven't tried anise, it comes from the seed of the star anise plant. Although it tastes similar to licorice, fennel or Zambuca, I believe it's taste is unique. I say this because I don't like licorice, fennel, or Zanbuca, but I love anise. Buy it in extract form. The only place I was able to find it on the west side is the Italian market inside the Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery. This is the only place that has the stuff I'm used to getting back home in East Boston and the North End: olives, parmigiana reggiano, frozen ravioli, Nutella, etc.

The recipe? You'll have to buy VCTOTW to get the agave nectar cupcake recipe. [Don't fret chicklets! You can make these adjustments to any vanilla cupcake recipe with awesome results!! ]Instead of 1.5 teaspoons of vanilla and .5 teaspoons of almond, I used .5 of vanilla extract and .5 of anise extract for 12 cupcakes. The MOST important part is the icing: Take a bunch of powdered sugar, add a little soy milk and a little anise extract. Stir it all up. It should be the texture of Elmers glue (my icing is too thin in the photo above). Drizzle in the middle of each cooled cupcake and let it spread out. While the icing is still wet, sprinkle on the rainbow sprinkles, the tiny round kind, not the jimmies. Prego!!!!