The author lives in a quiet rural community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.
Hawaii Is a Melting Pot of Cuisines
Are you planning a year-end getaway to Hawaii or just dreaming of a warm tropical Christmas? Here are 10 tantalizing Hawaiian holiday treats and desserts to make your taste buds sing with joy—and dance the hula in your mouth!
Hawaii is a melting pot of cuisines and foods. This seems especially true of desserts and sweets. From the humble tapioca pudding to the decadent guava chiffon cake, these beloved treats are the must-haves at any holiday celebrations in Hawaii.
1. Hawaiian Bread Pudding
Hawaiian bread pudding is the equivalence of the Christmas fruit cake elsewhere. Chunks of sweet rolls are soaked in coconut cream then baked with eggs, shredded coconut, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pineapple or banana. Moist, fluffy, and full of tropical flavors, it’s often served with a vanilla or chocolate sauce. This delicious dessert is an example of the European influence in Hawaiian cuisine. English explorer Captain James Cook first set foot on the islands in the early 18th century, followed by waves of European settlers who introduced to Hawaii their traditional foods.
2. Purple Sweet Potato Haupia Pie
It’s probably the most favorite dessert at many Hawaiian family gatherings during the holiday season. Purple sweet potato (also known as Okinawan potato) is the star of this creamy dessert! The crust is made of chopped macadamia nuts, flour, and butter. A mixture of eggs and purple sweet potato purée fills up the pie. After baking for 40-45 minutes, the cake is topped with a generous layer of haupia—made with coconut cream, sugar, and pia (a starchy root vegetable)—then chilled for several hours before serving.
Introduced to Hawaii by Japanese immigrants during the plantation era, this rice cake is another popular holiday treat. Traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day, mochi (pronounced “moh chee”) is made with mochigome—a special glutinous rice. The rice is first steamed then pounded for several hours (in a stone mortar) into a smooth ball, which then molded into cakes of various sizes and shapes. Mochi has a delicate, chewy texture and is usually filled with a sweet or savory adzuki bean paste. During the last week of every December, you can participate in many exciting mochitsuki ceremonies (community mochi pounding events) that take place in various towns across the islands.
4. Butter Mochi
This cake gets its name from the use of butter—a lot of butter that is!—in the sticky rice flour mix. Soft, chewy and bursting with vanilla flavor, it can be enjoyed as a dessert or a snack during the holidays. Because it is easy to make (it calls for only a few ingredients), there are numerous variations, including a chocolate butter mochi, which rivals the taste of an ordinary brownie. Warm a piece of butter mochi cake in the microwave (about 30 seconds), then top it with a scoop of Hawaiian coffee ice cream. Let the ice cream partially melt before you take a bite—it’s simply divine!
This famous Portuguese pastry—deep-fried dough coated with granulated sugar—was first introduced to Hawaii during the 19th century. Malasadas are either plain or filled with vanilla, chocolate, or tropical fruit (guava, passionfruit, mango) custards. Locals have strong opinions about which supermarket or bakery on the islands makes the best malasadas. If you’re invited to a holiday potluck in Hawaii and not sure what to bring, show up with a box of malasadas, you will make a lot of new friends!
6. Tapioca Pudding
Silky coconut milk and delicate pearls of tapioca are the main ingredients of this old-fashioned and timeless dessert. Tapioca pearls are made from the starchy roots of the cassava plant. First soaked in water then quickly boiled, they become translucent and tender. Fresh fruits like banana, passionfruit, or mango are added for extra flavors and textures. Taro (a traditional Hawaiian staple food) is also used to give this dessert a sweet earthy taste and soft purple hue. Tapioca pudding is especially popular among the Chinese and Thai communities in Hawaii. It’s a great comfort food dessert and can be served warm or cold.
7. Guava Chiffon Cake
Guava-infused buttercream! Guava jelly! One bite of this heavenly spongy cake will fill your mouth with the unmistakable tropical guava taste! This fruit grows abundantly in Hawaii and is widely used in making juices, jams, and desserts. The cake's lovely pink color comes from the guava purée mixed into the batter before baking. Guava chiffon cake is often served at other Hawaiian celebrations like weddings, birthdays, and graduation parties. Another fantastic version of this cake is the liliko’i (passionfruit) chiffon cake.
8. Pumpkin Haupia Pie
In Hawaii, pumpkin is a year-round vegetable. You can enjoy a pumpkin pie (made with fresh pumpkin) anytime and don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving! Pumpkin haupia pie is very similar to the purple sweet potato haupia pie but with pumpkin purée as the main ingredient. Evaporated milk is also added to give the pumpkin a mousse-like texture, along with ground ginger and cloves for an extra touch of spice. This is one of the classic desserts that take pride of place at many holiday meals in Hawaii.
9. Ube Shortbread Bars
Ube (also called uhi) is an edible yam brought to Hawaii centuries ago by Polynesian seafarers. It has a distinctive deep-violet color and is used as a natural food coloring, especially for sweets and desserts. In this traditional Filipino treat, the smashed yam is sandwiched between layers of shortbread cookie dough made with flour, eggs, and butter. Along with the nutty, crumbly shortbread base, the chewy and buttery filling gives this dessert an irresistible charm.
10. Macadamia Nut Snowballs
Macadamia nut snowballs are a perennial favorite Christmas treat for Hawaiian kids. These melt-in-your-mouth cookies are made with crushed macadamia nuts, flour, and butter. After baking, they are rolled in confectioners’ sugar while still warm. Dried coconut flakes are sometimes used as “snow” instead of sugar. Some bakers add chopped candied ginger or pineapple or even white chocolate chips to lend a pleasant surprise. In other places around the world, walnut, hazelnut, and pecan are used instead of macadamia nut. It's the ultimate dessert that will get you into the holiday spirit in no time!
All photos were taken by the author in his kitchen with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone6.
Questions & Answers
Question: This is a great article to introduce me to some Hawaiian desserts. I can’t find a recipe for the ube shortbread bars when I google it or look on Pinterest. Do you, the writer of this article, have a link to a recipe for ube shortbread bars?
Answer: You may want to google "purple yam" or "Filipino desserts" to find a recipe, hopefully. Ube shortbread bars are like other fruit bars with shortbread crust (e.g., lemon bars) so perhaps you could follow the same recipe but instead of fruit jam/jelly fillings, you would use smashed purple yam.
© 2019 Viet Doan
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on December 31, 2019:
Thanks Liz. So glad you're inspired by this article to make new desserts. You will find plenty of step-by-step recipes online. Have fun and happy baking!
Liz Westwood from UK on December 31, 2019:
I sometimes struggle for new dessert ideas. This is a very useful and well-presented article. You have given me plenty of food for thought.
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on December 27, 2019:
Thanks Linda. How I wish you and other readers could taste everything! I must confess that I ate all these desserts after taking their pictures for this article. Not in one day (thank goodness!) but yes, I ate them all! Happy Holidays!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 26, 2019:
These look and sound like wonderful desserts! They are all new to me and I would love to try them all. Thank you for sharing the information and the very enticing photos. I like the fact that the colors come from natural sources.