Baker Susan Fein enjoys making people’s sweet dreams come true.
“People tell me, ‘My child’s never had a birthday cake,’ or ‘I haven’t had a birthday cake in 10 years.’ One girl called and ordered a vanilla cake. I asked her if that was her dream cake, and she said no. Her dream was a confetti cake — so I made it,” she said. “I love making exactly what my customers dream of. It fills my heart.”
Fein is owner of Pu‘uwai Aloha Bakery, a dedicated gluten-free eatery situated on a quiet stretch of Lusitana Street that delivers much more than specialty cakes. Pastry cases are stocked with breads, tea cakes, scones, cookies — plus spiral rolls filled with basil pesto, breakfast pastries topped with corned beef hash and egg, baked manapua, baked turkey sandwiches, smoked salmon and arugula quiches … with some 12 dozen items in rotation, the list goes on and on.
An array of those baked goods is also vegan (nonvegan items can be made vegan with advance notice), and the menu extends to include such comfort food as local ahi green chili over rice and a variety of soups.
Fein prides herself on using ingredients that are local when possible, mostly organic and non-GMO. A chalkboard on the bakery door lists some of her suppliers, among them: fish from Local I‘a, Waianae kiawe flour, meats from Kauai and Big Island ranches, veggies “from the kids @ Ma‘o Organic.”
But for all her dedication to delivering gluten-free fare, Fein said she’s found that her food appeals to all types of eaters.
I can vouch for that. I had been nudged regularly to visit Pu‘uwai Aloha by a couple of staff photographers who stop by the bakery between assignments for grab-and-go meals. Neither is required to eat gluten free, yet both call the bakery a favorite breakfast and lunch destination.
I finally made it there with my husband, a notoriously finicky eater who usually prefers hunger over a gluten-free dish. But I guess the lure of the pastry case was too much for him, and he succumbed to the temptations of a peanut butter-dark chocolate cookie and a caramel coconut tea cake. He gave both a thumbs up. That is high praise indeed.
My own favorites were the hearty corned beef hash and egg breakfast pastry; a moist, fragrant, understated zucchini-date-lavendar tea cake; the basil-pesto spiral roll; a lusciously rich and moist chocolate cupcake; and a dinner roll with a beautiful golden crust and soft, springy white bread inside.
Interestingly enough, Fein said that lately, more and more customers come in for the comfort food and bread rather than the pastries.
A classically trained chef, Fein has been baking since she was 18 and has run various catering and bakery businesses for decades. She originally made a splash on Oahu when she opened Mary Catherine’s bakery with a partner in 1984. A couple years prior, she had operated a pot pie and turnover shop in San Francisco.
In 1989, she left Mary Catherine’s and moved to Kauai, opening yet another bakery, until the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki pushed her to move to Austin, Texas. There, she ran an all-spelt bakery. Spelt is an ancient wheat grain that is a more digestible form of wheat. The spelt craze, she said, was a precursor to the gluten-free movement.
Fein eventually moved back to Kauai. Upon her return to Oahu in late 2015, she was motivated to open up shop when she saw that this island offered few venues for folks on restricted diets.
Fein said wherever she operates, she tries to be part of the community. Her shop is truly part of the Punchbowl neighborhood, located across the street from residences. She said she searched for — and found — a space with reasonable rent, which also allows her to keep her prices reasonable. “If not, people who need to do gluten-free cannot do it,” she said.
Popular items include the peanut butter cookies (“These might be the most pieces I sell of anything,” said Fein), zucchini tea cake, basil-pesto roll, lilikoi poppy seed tea cake, manapua, turkey sandwich and smoked salmon quiche.
A rundown on prices: Cookies and scones, $3; cupcakes, $4 to $5; tea cakes, $5; brownies, $5; soups with bread, $6; savory rolls and sandwiches, $6-$8; quiches, $8; ahi chili, $9.
Specialty cakes are made to order, and Fein said she enjoys collaborating with customers to create new flavors. She can make them vegan as well as gluten-free, and they can be quite fancy. Her chocolate ganache cake, for instance, is often made with a fresh fruit filling. Most cakes are layered, though upon request she can bake a single layer. Because of the diversity of sizes and requests, the price range is wide, usually falling between $36 and $88.
Collaboration not only gets the customer the cake they want, it allows Fein to explore new possibilities for her menu. “Customers come up with great stuff, and that gives me ideas for more cool stuff.”
PU’UWAI ALOHA BAKERY
1670 Lusitana St.
>> Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays; special orders may be set for pickup any day.
>> Call: 631-1717
>> FarmLovers Farmers Markets: Find the bakery’s goods at Kailua Elementary School, 8:30 a.m. to noon Sundays, and at the corner of Ward Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard, 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays.
“Going Gluten-Free” helps meet the cooking and dining challenges faced by those on wheat-free diets. It runs on the first Wednesday of each month. Send questions to Joleen Oshiro, email@example.com.