Back in the days before international travel became but a foggy memory, one of Annie Zheng’s favorite places to visit was Taiwan, where she first fell in love with feng li su, or pineapple cakes — a Taiwanese pastry she’d only found in the U.S. in the sad, mass-manufactured form that’s sold at the big Chinese supermarkets.
So when Zheng started a baked goods business called Home Flavory Eats based out of her East Bay home, pineapple cakes were the first item that came to mind. “It’s the only thing that can remind me of my time in Taiwan,” Zheng says.
Now, just a month since their public debut, Zheng’s handmade pineapple cakes have already cultivated a dedicated following in the Bay Area, especially around San Mateo and Castro Valley, where Zheng lives. The cakes’ fans include the proprietors of San Francisco Chinatown’s Washington Bakery, who decided to collaborate with Zheng to bring her treats to SF for the Lunar New Year: Customers who preorder their pineapple cake gift boxes online will be able to pick them up at the Hong Kong-style restaurant’s Chinatown storefront this Thursday, February 11 (Lunar New Year’s Eve), as well as next Thursday, February 18.
A quick primer for those who aren’t familiar: Despite their name, the sweet, buttery pineapple cakes are more akin to a jam-stuffed shortbread cookie — or, say, an unusually delicious Fig Newton — than what one might typically think of as a “cake.” In Taiwan, boxes of feng li su are often given out as gifts during the Lunar New Year holiday — in part because the word for pineapple, in the Taiwanese dialect, is a homophone for a phrase that translates roughly as “good fortune is coming.” They also just make for attractive presents, since they come nicely packaged with aesthetically pleasing individual wrappers. Home Flavory Eats’ version is no exception.
Like so many food business origin stories these days, Zheng’s life as a baker started off as a COVID story: She had worked in corporate conferences, one of the industries wiped out by the pandemic. After she was laid off in October, she suddenly found herself with a lot more free time. Zheng wasn’t the first or last person to enthusiastically take up baking as a hobby during the pandemic, or to document her cooking experiments on Instagram. The difference, in her case, Zheng’s one-minded focus on perfecting her feng li su.
Zheng, a native of Guangdong, China, doesn’t have roots in Taiwan herself, but she knew she wanted to model her pastries after her favorite Taiwanese pineapple cake brands — she cites SunnyHills (微熱山丘) as a particular favorite. According to Zheng, even the Bay Area bakeries that do make their pineapple cakes in-house tend to use a pre-made filling that’s shipped over from Taiwan. After all, making the filling from scratch is the most time-consuming part of the entire process, which is why the cakes aren’t typically something that home bakers make — not even in Taiwan, where most home kitchens don’t come equipped with ovens.
For Home Flavory Eats’ version, Zheng starts with whole raw pineapples, which she peels, chops up, and slowly dries over the course of two or three hours to make the pineapple filling, aging it for another two days in order to allow the flavors to develop. The freshly made filling, evenly balanced between sweet and tart, is a big part of what makes Home Flavory Eats’ version taste so much better than the mass-manufactured supermarket varieties, Zheng says. Another part is the rich, buttery crust, which Zheng makes in both traditional and matcha-flavored versions.
The pineapple cakes are available as an eight-piece ($21) or 10-piece ($26) gift box, with a $2 upcharge for the matcha crust version.
Lisa Situ, who handles marketing for Washington Bakery, says the collaboration was partly just a way for the restaurant to shine a light on this product they loved, bringing it to a new audience in San Francisco. It was also a way to expand awareness of more non-Cantonese foods within Chinatown.
“When people look at Chinese or Asian food in general, they think it’s all the same,” Situ says. “But we have more than just one part or one flavoring; each region has its own flavors.”
For now, with her mother as the only other pair of hands in the kitchen, Zheng can only make a very limited number of pineapple cakes each week. This week, she has a few more gift boxes available for pickup at Washington Bakery this Thursday, February 11, with a February 8 deadline to put in your order. That said, Home Flavory Eats will continue selling the cakes throughout the holiday season, with at least one more pop-up at Washington Bakery next week, on February 18, in additional to its usual pickup times at Uji Time’s San Mateo location (Thursday through Saturday, ongoing) and at Zheng’s Castro Valley home (every Thursday afternoon). Both Washington Bakery and Uji Time are also offering a 10 percent discount to customers who purchase the pineapple cake gift boxes.