It’s been over a year now that I’ve been seeing St. Hale’s amazing cookie sandwiches on Instagram, and I’ve been meaning to try it and learn more about it ever since.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I had just this golden opportunity. I had an entire afternoon to talk to Isabel “Isay” Lagunzad, the genius behind these baked goodies. And they’re not just any kind of cookie sandwiches. The cookie dough, apparently, is aged.
What does it mean when you “age” dough? How does it work? And what does it do to the dough, actually?
I had all these questions in my mind when I spoke to Isay, who has been actively driving the St. Hale business since 2012. At that time, she had just left her first job, and she wanted to pin down what her true passion in life was, and after some soul-searching, she discovered that it had always been baking.
Though having had studied baking for a month at the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management (ISCAM), and under the tutelage of Mrs. Isaac—the first cake-decorating instructor to teach the Wilton Method of Cake Decorating in the Philippines—Isay humbly does not claim to be a food expert.
She had always had a penchant for baking in her family of six, and had started as early as her elementary days. Naturally, the first people to have had a taste of her baking were her parents and siblings.
How it all started
When Isay launched St. Hale in 2012, she was making ice cream cookie sandwiches, which were a definite hit, but which were also already a common treat and proved challenging in terms of storage, ingredients and product development. Since a key ingredient at that time was the ice cream, she thought of ‘hail’ and played around with the spelling, adding the ‘St.’ in the end. “I didn’t want to call them ‘Isay’s cookies’ because I knew I didn’t want to limit myself to just one kind of product,” she says.
Isay longed for a product that would resonate among both kids and kids at heart. In fact, her long-term goal is to eventually put up a shop or café, taking inspiration from this desire. “I want this restaurant to promote the kid in you, ” she says with a smile. She thought about her own childhood with her siblings, recalling how they would heat marshmallows on the stove to make their own s’mores.
Struck with inspiration, Isay in 2014 started creating homemade marshmallows, which would soon become a key element in her new and improved cookie sandwiches. She also began researching more about cookie preparation and soon she stumbled upon the process of aging dough.
Aging cookie dough and doing ‘cookie gigs’
‘Aging’ is the closest term Isay can use to define her unique way of preparing her cookie dough, which produces the unique texture, flavor and aroma in her cookies. The process involves freezing the dough and a few more steps which overall takes up to two months, before the cookies are finally baked and ready for selling.
Now, when we mean selling, we actually mean ‘performing’. That’s because another fascinating facet of St. Hale is that Isay prepares the cookie sandwiches live, in what she calls ‘cookie gigs’, usually taking place in bazaars.
First, a chocolate cookie is laid upside down on a dish, upon a revolving mechanism (it kind of looks like a tree stump).
Isay slathers on a generous scoop of rich chocolate on a chocolate chip cookie, sprinkles some salt, adds a block of homemade marshmallow, then proceeds with torching it, creating that mouthwatering s’mores effect. “I got the idea from my dad, who happened to watch a chef on TV torching a dish, and then he suggested it to me,” Isay says.
Another chocolate chip cookie is then plopped on top, then Isay sprinkles some sea salt for some contrast to the sweetness, a final touch to the sandwich—about the size of a cheeseburger. It’s a bit tricky avoiding any of that melted, gooey goodness not dribbling onto your chin, but it’s oh so worth it. The whole process, which takes several minutes, has onlookers oohing and aahing and asking all sorts of questions.
One of her interesting bits of trivia is that she uses antibiotic-free eggs for her dough, and she even has them on display—slightly smaller than regular eggs, with a bluish-green tinge. Apparently they’re from a different and foreign breed of chickens. Aside from the antibiotic-free eggs, which Isay is an advocate of, she also uses mostly local ingredients, such as chocolate from Malagos, Davao, which recently won silver in an international chocolate competition, and sea salt from Pangasinan.
But the beauty of St. Hale’s cookie gigs is that they’re a great conversation starter and Isay gets to interact with her customers, telling them about the process of aging the cookie dough. She also gets suggestions to consider for her business.
“Some customers have said they would heat them in the microwave; my sister says the sandwich is yummier when chilled,” Isay says. “I’ve also had a friend who stored the cookie sandwich in the fridge for over a month, and she said it tasted even better. Though to be safe, I would peg the shelf life to two weeks.”
Nevertheless, Isay still recommends that customers stick to the classic way she serves her cookie sandwiches—hot and with a freshly torched marshmallow. “Some people think the sandwiches are fine without the torching, but without it, I think you lose on the whole visual experience—the unique taste, texture and smell.”
The whole setup of Isay’s cookie gigs resemble a cooking show, which is a definite scene stealer during events. At one point, she was able to sell as much as 100 cookie sandwiches at a bazaar. St. Hale usually has its cookie gigs in Katipunan and recently, in Alabang.
Passion, pride and ambition
Isay takes pride in having set up her business on her own, but with the help and support of her family. “It’s not easy when you have this kind of business on top of a regular 9 to 6 job,” she says. “This is where most of my free time goes to—when I get home from work, I bake. On weekends, I bake. My only rest is the sleep I get during the lunch breaks at work, and I try to sleep more on Sundays.”
While the option of considering a business partner or expanding is on the horizon, Isay is for now content to focus on sustaining the business and product as it is currently, though there are plans of having the business registered and determining the nutritional value of the cookie sandwiches for her more health-conscious patrons. She’s also considering coming up with a smaller version of her cookies so she can also target a wider market—currently the regular-sized cookie sandwiches cost P130 to P140 each, depending on where her cookie gig is.
“It hasn’t always been this easy,” she says. “At my first bazaar, it flooded but I still kept on selling. May isang beses lumubog pa ‘yung dough ko. Even if it’s hard and sometimes stressful, I choose to keep doing it because it’s really different if you’re doing something you love. Today, I’m slowly getting a taste of accomplishment. Now, I’m thinking, what other flavors can I do?”
For inquiries and orders, visit St. Hale’s Facebook page, Instagram account @sthalecookies, or text Isay at 09778372015 or 09163055679.
Did your mouth water from any of the food photos in this feature? Head on over to www.majoy-siason.com to see more drool-worthy pics!