I didn’t go about trying to make an amazingly delicious cookie. What I really wanted was to make a cool box that many visitors to Hawaii would want to take home from their vacation. As a professional corporate designer and photographer, I started with the packaging first.
But as a passionate cookie lover and an avid baker, I did want to to fill the box with a product that I could be proud of and that I would want to eat myself. So I began tinkering around in the kitchen. I tend to be very goal-oriented when I cook, which might sound a little strange and even “corporate” for lack of a better word. But I know that my cookies needed to meet certain criteria, they had to be durable as well as being delicious.
The idea of a cookie being durable might seem antithetical to being tasty—but the reality is baking cookies in the tropics can be tough. The problem is the humidity which turns many a baked good into a soft crumbly mess when it sits around very long. But I love crunchy cookies! And I love complex flavors. And lastly, I wanted a cookie evoke the feelings and tastes of Hawaii.
The Anatomy of a Cookie
As I began my quest, I first looked at my favorite cookies. One of my all-time favorites is from Tate’s Bake Shop—their classic chocolate chip cookie is delicious and very crunchy! Also in my hall-of-fame for best crunch is the Italian biscotti, which is double-baked to pull out all moisture.
I then looked specifically at flavor combinations. Top of my list there is Girl Scout Samoas: I love the caramel and toasted coconut together. Second is the cowboy cookie—a chocolate chip cookie with added fruit, nuts, and other ingredients that give it a complex depth of flavor. Finally I used to buy a local cookie in Marin County called Beth’s Babies. Their triple ginger cookies were amazing! So packed with flavor, which was even more special in that they were tiny—less than bite-sized. How could something so bitsy pack such a wallop of a flavor? I wanted my cookies to have these qualities—to be small and delicate, but packed with flavor
Regarding size, I love small cookies! I also knew that the Japanese, who are one of my main audiences, also prefer smaller food portions. I remember one story of a fellow that introduced bagels to Japan; he had no luck until someone got the idea of making them half the size, and then sales took off!
So that was my criteria: the cookies had to be crunchy, durable, and packed with flavor. A cookie I myself would want to eat.
It's What's Inside That Counts
Then it came to selecting the ingredients. I wanted to use Hawaiian ingredients as much as possible; and also natural flavors that would stand out on their own.
I knew I had to use unbleached flour (as food products containing bleached flour are not allowed to be shipped into Japan); and creamery butter—no Crisco in this cookie, it had to be buttery!
As for sugar, white sugar makes for better snap, but brown sugar has more flavor. I discovered one of the last sugar refiners in Maui—they had a wonderful raw sugar, but alas, they closed their doors midway through my experimentation. I looked at other raw sugars, particularly jaggery, a palm sugar from southern Asia with a unique flavor, but the logistics of getting jaggery in Hawaii was a challenge. I finally settled on raw cane sugar, which has a more complex taste than plain old brown sugar.
From there I explored typical Hawaiian ingredients including ginger, coconut, coffee, and chocolate from the Big Island. Lastly, while exploring the back streets of Honolulu, I stumbled across a bit of old Honolulu in a small local shop that sold crack seed—dried chewy types fruit like persimmons, mango, and pineapple, persevered in li hing mui, a powder made from salted plum and licorice. It is especially good on fresh pineapple buy I hadn’t thought of using it with dried pineapple in a cookie. I had never had pineapple in a cookie but once I started playing around with li hing powder and candied pineapple I knew I was onto something unusual and quite tasty!
A bit of old Honolulu.
I spent a year or so tinkering with flavors and ingredients, relying on friends as taste testers, hitting a few speed bumps along the way. The most unexpected being volcanoes. Unfortunately, the eruption of Kilauea on the Big Island decimated a large part of the macadamia groves there, both from flowing lava, and from smoke damage to groves further away. Macadamia nuts were not to be found in the Islands for months. One rarely anticipates lava as a hindrance in making cookies, but it happens!
Visiting the lave flows on the Big Island.
I finally came up with a collection of cookies that my friends claimed to love. By this point I had made and tasted so many, it was hard for me to tell. But the texts and calls from friends asking for more—as well as the reactions of samplings by acquaintances—made me realize that ‘Ohana Nui cookies were something extraordinary!
Sampling the cookies at the Made in Hawaii Festival in 2919.