After her father passed away at Maui Memorial Medical Center last year, Mitzi Toro wanted to find a way to thank the nurses who had taken care of him. So the Kalama Intermediate School employee brought out her famous cookie recipe and decided to have a bake sale, with the money dedicated to buying the nurses new uniforms.
"I just felt like I needed to do something," she recalls.
The over-the-top cookies she baked for the fundraiser - which she sold out of a booth at Wailuku's First Friday over a period of four months - were such a hit with customers that Toro decided to turn her baking into a business. And after making some important culinary connections at a recent industry event, The Maui Cookie Lady is taking off.
One of Mitzi Toro’s most popular cookies, “The Baconator,” features chocolate, maple syrup and a real slice of bacon.
Photo courtesy of Mitzi Toro
“The Sarah Biggs” is named after the customer who encouraged Mitzi Toro to keep selling her unique cookies.
Photo courtesy of Mitzi Toro
"We went from having two varieties to about 45 now," she says. "We sell out at every event."
A longtime home baker, Toro says she was known for bringing goodies to share with her colleagues at Kalama, where she was formerly a counselor and now works as a testing coordinator and an English Language Learner teacher. For her nurses' fundraiser, she prepared her signature cookie, the "Butter Rum Triple Chunker," a recipe she was given by a favorite English teacher when she was in the 9th grade.
"I've been baking this cookie since I was 14," she says.
During the four months she sold cookies at Wailuku First Friday, she developed several repeat customers. At her final sale, one woman asked her to keep coming back.
"I said sure," Toro says.
Toro ended up naming a new recipe after her - the Sarah Biggs, a decadent confection featuring five forms of chocolate - and the cookie has gone on to become one of her top sellers.
Toro has become known for her quirky, towerlike cookies made with sometimes surprising ingredients. The popular "Baconator" is made with dark chocolate and maple syrup, topped with a generous slice of candied bacon on top.
The "B-52 Ice Cream Bomber" combines an orange sherbet emulsion, Lucky Charms marshmallow bits, white chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles, more orange sherbet, pineapple, lime, and raspberry malted milk balls.
Made with real buttermilk waffles, maple syrup, oats, cinnamon and mega chocolate chunks, "All American Chicken and Waffles" is topped with maple buttercream and a nugget of fried chicken.
"I love cupcakes and I love cookies, so I kind of combine the two," she says of her unusual vertical cookie design. "I love crazy toppings and being creative. The sky's the limit."
Toro made an important industry connection when she met Clark Guittard at the International Baking Expo in Las Vegas in October. The brand manager of high-quality Guittard Chocolates - her favorite ingredient - was impressed by her story and her inventiveness, and offered to supply her with any product in the Guittard line with no shipping fees.
He went on to offer her guidance and support as she grew her business, answering questions, dispensing advice and securing her an invitation to sit in on a master class in Honolulu with an acclaimed visiting pastry chef.
"The opportunity was just incredible," she says. "(Guittard) has been my mentor."
Toro's cookies have also earned a mention in this month's issue of Dessert Professional magazine.
Toro, who was previously recognized by the Department of Education as the state's counselor of the year, says altruism remains an important part of her life. She has baked cookies to thank Maui police officers and also donates cookies to troops fighting in Afghanistan. That project involved working with the state Department of Health to make her bacon shelf-stable, and coordinating with Maui Pack & Ship to find the best way of transporting the confections. They ended up wrapping each cookie individually, designing a special box to ship them in, and packing them with Styrofoam and dry ice.
"It's just really fun to give back," she says.
In addition to Wailuku First Fridays, Toro sells her cookies at Kihei Fourth Fridays, and at Maui Arts & Cultural Center events. For more information about her business, see her website, www.themauicookielady.com.
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Neighbors and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.