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Haupia, Hawaiian Coconut Pudding

If you’ve been to a luau, you’ve seen haupia. They’re the glistening white squares at the end of the buffet line. Next to the coconut cake and Kona coffee chocolate macadamia nut pie. Most visitors aren’t sure what to make of the milky-white cubes, but if they’re brave, they pop one into their mouth.

The cool pudding-like texture melts once it hits your tongue. Silky, creamy and tasting of pure coconut, it’s a dreamy treat for those who seek coconut’s sublet flavor.

Haupia (pronounced how pee ah) tastes of pure coconut because it’s made with just four ingredients: freshly grated coconut, cornstarch, sugar and water. Sound simple? Well, authentic haupia is a two day process.

You’d have to come up with about 16 coconuts if you were to make haupia from scratch. You’d crack them open, pry the flesh from the shell, and grate 4 pounds of meat. Since this is labor intensive, small batches aren’t worth the effort.

Boil the grated coconut meat in a large pot of water. Once it cools, strain it thorough cheese cloth, and reserve the coconut milk. Take an entire box of cornstarch and mix it with water, sugar and the coconut milk and warm it over low heat until it thickens. Make sure to stir constantly or it will stick to the pot.

At this point there will be about five quarts of liquid haupia, that have to poured into cookie trays to cooled overnight.

That’s too much work, even for me.

Hawaiian Coconut Syrup. Marta iPhone photo

When I see the Hawaiian Coconut Syrup booth at the Kauai Culinary Market in Poipu, I nearly pass it by. Eight dollar bags of coconut syrup? Not so much. It reminds me of a once-used, sticky-sweet bottle of “coconut” syrup that’s been in the cabinet for about 2 years. I should just throw it away.

But my eyes linger on the bright blue packaging and a shy, middle aged offers me a sample. Skeptically, I agree. I mean, I want to like coconut syrup!

He shakes a plastic squeeze bottle and presses its sides. My heart quickens, my eyes widen, and my attention is focused on a fat stream of light, almost fluffy looking syrup slowly spiraling onto a small plastic spoon.

It tastes like cream of coconut. The syrup has texture to it. It’s light and pillowy like it’s been whipped, and it’s not too sweet. This is the coconut syrup of my dreams. As I pay for a bag, visions of macadamia nut pancakes with this thick, ambrosial syrup dance in my head. A blur on my left materializes into a small, elderly Asian woman with jet-black hair.

She is Barbara Oki, the proprietor of the now closed Oki Diner. For fourteen years, she served her coconut syrup at the diner, and customers encouraged her to sell it. After two years, and many failed attempts, she created a powered form. It’s a family affair. The man selling the packages at the farmers market, is one of her sons, who also helps package it. Another son designed the packaging.

She names one use, and recipe after another, rapid fire like. Her lean, 80-year-old frame moves with brisk vitality. I make a mental note to visit the Hawaiian Coconut Syrup website for the recipes.

I never did make coconut syrup and macadamia nut pancakes. I made haupia instead.

Haupia Pudding Squares

Crunchy Haupia Bites. Marta iPhone photo

Crunchy Haupia Bites. Marta iPhone photo

Normally, the pudding is cut into cubes. I decided I wanted a little crunch, to complement the creamy. I poured the haupia over a graham cracker crust, and sprinkled it with toasted macadamia nuts. It was the first thing to go at the pot luck! 

Makes 36 squares

Graham Cracker Crust
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about one package)
1/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Mix everything in a bowl and press into an 8 x 8 baking pan. Bake at 375 for 7 minutes, until golden and aromatic. Set aside to cool.

5 tablespoons cornstarch
3 1/4 cup water, divided
1, 8-ounce package Hawaiian Coconut Syrup
1 cup macadamia nuts

Haupia cooling in a 8 x 8 pan. Marta iPhone photo

Haupia cooling in a 8 x 8 pan. Marta iPhone photo

Dissolve cornstarch into 1/4 cup water, and set aside. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil, and add contents of package while whisking. Stir cornstarch mixture in, and whisk vigorously as haupia will start to thicken quickly. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Pour over graham cracker crust and cool.

When haupia is cool, chill in the refrigerator. meanwhile, chop 1 cup of macadamia nuts and toast over low-heat until lightly brown and fragrant.

When the haupia is chilled, after three hours, gather two cutting boards. Gently place one over the top of the pan, and flip. The cutting board should now be on the bottom. Lightly tap the haupia so it falls onto the cutting board. Remove pan. You should have the bottom side (crust side) of the haupia facing up. Place the second cutting board over the graham cracker crust, and give it a light, quick flip.

Using a long, sharp knife make a cut along the center. Cut the two halves in thirds, rotate the cutting board, and repeat. Sprinkle with toasted macadamia nuts and serve.

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