Hawai‘i is a dessert lovers’ destination, and not just because no one will ever express guilt over devouring a slice (or maybe two) of haupia cake, or making breakfast of hot malassadas. Dessert here is celebrated, and the desserts that come from other traditions all become slightly Hawai‘i-fied. Here, mochi isn’t traditional Japanese mochi — there are versions stuffed with peanut butter and others with haupia. And while some malassadas, which arrived with Portuguese immigrants, are filled with custard and pudding, others come dusted in li hing mui powder.
Bottom line: no matter where you are in Hawai‘i, you won’t be far from a noteworthy sweet treat. Here’s a guide to some of the best and most beloved desserts, as well as recommendations on where to find them in Honolulu.
In most of the world, “chantilly” means whipped cream. In Hawai‘i, “chantilly” means a mixture of egg yolks, butter, evaporated milk, sugar, and just a bit of salt. It’s beaten, and functions as a cake frosting or cake filling — or, really, can be applied to anything to add a touch of something sweet-savory and super buttery. Local chantilly is very much a “Hawai‘i only” thing, maple custard in color and undeniably rich. Chantilly shows up most famously piped atop the Coco Puffs from Liliha Bakery, a local institution, where choux pastry puffs are filled with chocolate pudding and finished with a healthy dollop of chantilly (they sell a whopping 10,000 a day!). Liliha also makes a Chantilly Cake which layers a light (almost chiffon-esque) chocolate cake with the chantilly. Some prefer Saint Germain’s Chantilly Cake, more restrained with delicate chiffon cake layers.
Hawai‘i locals love texture in our desserts, and crunch cakes and bars can be found at bakeries throughout town in flavors like pumpkin and lemon. There are three main components to each “crunch:” a base, a filling, and the crunch itself. Pumpkin Crunch Bars have a crunch base of shortbread and nuts, whipped pumpkin pie filling, and whipped cream. Lemon crunch cakes have lemon cake, lemon curd, and whipped cream with crushed toffee. The best bites are when you can get a bit of every component in each bite. You get that soft, sweet cream, the buttery base and a light “crunch” that brings it all together.
Diamond Head Market & Grill (a local go-to spot for plate lunches and a killer lineup of baked goods), layers a pecan cookie crust base with light pumpkin pie filling and fresh whipped cream. Diamond Head also makes lemon crunch cake, laying lemon cream cake with lemon curd and crunchy toffee bits. The Alley Restaurant at Aiea Bowl offers a similar and well-loved version. Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery makes a popular pumpkin crunch, which layers nearly equal parts whipped cream with the pumpkin filling. It’s available in individual squares or whole cakes; the whole cakes are a perfect Thanksgiving dessert option.
In Hawai‘i, sweet bread refers not to the animal organs, but a plush, soft Portuguese bread. It’s a local staple found on the kitchen counter of many homes. Ani's Bake Shop makes the best — there’s a brick-and-mortar bakery in ‘Aiea, but local supermarkets (and even all Costco locations) throughout the state also sell Ani’s breads. Imagine Parker House roll meets brioche, but sweeter, creamier, and deep gold in color. Ani’s sweet bread is baked in round cake pans, making it easy to pull apart — there are eight pieces to a pan — for afternoon snacks or breakfast (my dad makes breakfast sandwiches of scrambled eggs and pan-fried Spam tucked into split sweet bread wedges). Soft and fluffy with a delicate “skin” layer, it’s great fresh and even better toasted the next morning.
Malassadas are essentially Hawai‘i’s version of doughnuts, but better. Imagine brioche, but softer, deep-fried, and rolled in sugar, then filled with ingredients like dobash (chocolate pudding), haupia, or vanilla custard. The origins may be Portuguese, but malassadas are one of Hawai‘i’s most iconic desserts. They appear at almost every type of function — breakfast, dessert, potluck parties, family dinners, graduation parties, and beyond. And if there are any leftovers, making malassada bread pudding is also a popular thing to do.
Leonard’s Bakery is the most popular malassada destination in town, and also the most touristy. Malassadas here are fried to order, ensuring that each one has a golden, slightly crisp exterior, and a plush, super moist interior. Another go-to spot is Pipeline Bakeshop & Creamery, where the malassadas are also made to order, with more body than the ones from Leonard’s.
Every year over the first weekend of February, the Punahou School Carnival offers the best malassadas in the world. They’re craggy and haphazard in shape, but there’s a certain something that gives the sugar dusting an extra kick — no one knows what, since the recipe is a school secret.
Haupia is a Hawaiian sweet traditionally made of coconut milk and pia (arrowroot starch, though most places now use cornstarch). It’s found in many forms — sometimes with the texture of Jell-O, served in bite-size cubes, or made into a loose custard used as a cake filling or frosting. The formula for the popular haupia cake is simple: white or yellow cake layered with haupia custard, covered completely in fresh whipped cream, and finished with coconut flakes. Many hotels offer a luxe version, including the The Kahala Hotel & Resort and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Bakery chain Saint-Germain is a favorite amongst locals and sells haupia cake in rectangular and square shapes — big squares are ideal for parties, and the rectangular slices are just the right size to share between a few friends.
Mochi, a sweet made from glutinous rice, was originally brought to Hawai‘i by Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s, and over the decades a distinctive local Hawai‘i mochi style developed — one softer and more approachable than its Japanese progenitor.
For the classic experience, head to Nisshodo Candy Store, a tiny storefront attached to the warehouse/factory space in an industrial area tucked behind a shopping center. Make sure to get the signature chichi dango, sweet mochi cut in loose, wobbly rectangles and individually wrapped in delicate papers like candy. A variation is dusted in kinako, roasted soybean powder. Nisshodo also does an excellent peanut butter-stuffed mochi that’s at once soft, chewy, and creamy. For a modern take, Saturday Grandma's mochi offers fun flavors like whipped liliko‘i cheesecake and peanut butter chocolate, found at their retail store or at the popular Kapi‘olani Community College Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. For an extremely specific local treat, order (via email) the haupia-stuffed mochi from Happy Hearts Mochi and schedule a time to pick it up — it’s worth the extra effort to try the original, or the chocolate and haupia (a very “traditional” Hawai‘i flavor combination) mochi.
An important subset of local mochi is butter mochi, which is baked in a sheet pan and tastes a bit like yellow butter cake with a mochi springiness. The best versions are made at home by someone’s mom or auntie or grandma, but pretty good options exist at supermarkets (Whole Foods makes an unexpectedly great chocolate butter mochi, sold by the pound). Otherwise, definitely check out Kahuku Farms for the butter mochi topped with dollops of liliko‘i butter.
Kūlolo, a traditional Hawaiian sweet, is made from steamed or baked grated taro mashed with generous helpings of coconut milk and sugar. Consistency-wise, think fudge meets custard. It’s simple and wonderful, and is often sold in one-pound rectangular slabs. Head to Waiahole Poi Factory and order the “Sweet Lady of Waiahole,” which combines warmed kūlolo (amazing — it gets all soft and loose) with vanilla ice cream. It’s a hot and cold affair, best devoured quickly.
Waiola Shave Ice is O‘ahu’s favorite old-school spot. Make sure to visit the original Waiola Street location and go for the azuki bowl (with a cap of sweet azuki beans and sweetened condensed milk) or custard bowl. In Kailua, The Local churns out shave ice that stands out thanks to their natural syrups made with local fruits. Flavors like strawberry li hing, ginger, and Maunakea green tea are bold and memorable. Aloha Ice stands out from the crowd by using compressed and frozen fruit that’s shaved: It’s not ice topped with syrup, but actual shaved frozen fruit. The best flavor at Aloha Ice is strawberry hibiscus, which layers shaved strawberry-hibiscus ice with haupia tapioca, li hing mui strawberries, and mochi ice cream. Monsarrat Shave Ice replaces fruit syrup with fruit purees, making for an extra thick shave ice. Similar to malassadas, no one version is necessarily better than any other — they’re all different and it’s worth trying them all.
Starbucks in Hawai‘i is better than Starbucks on the mainland, primarily because of oatcakes. Honolulu Baking Co. supplies all local Starbucks with oatcakes, these hearty, moist muffin-like rounds jammed with pecans, cranberries, dates, and blueberries. They are chewy, nutty, and immensely satisfying. The exact recipe is tightly guarded (there are many old newspaper articles documenting home cooks trying to replicate the Starbucks oatcake), so the only way to get one is to visit a Hawai‘i Starbucks.