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Happy Mothers Day + Making Childhood Comfort Food With My Sister & Mom (and Kids)

Happy Mother’s Day, moms. I know typically this holiday can either be full of joy or maybe some sadness, and I know this year might be even more challenging, but I hope that if you are celebrating or ignoring this day you are doing whatever makes you feel the happiest. I’m writing this in advance but I’m likely in a bath, watching Normal People (or something from our list) with a face mask, hair mask and a “mom-osa.” But last week I did two things I’ve been meaning to do: 1.) Cook dinner with my mom and sister (and cousins) via video (we use the Portal #nonspon). 2.) Make my childhood favorite comfort dish, Hawaiian Haystacks, to see if I still like it and regardless obviously force it upon my children. So I figured we could do both at the same time and try to get some semblance of connection with my mom and sister through a long hang out and cooking session.

But there is a backstory about this meal. Growing up I thought my mom learned this recipe from her (Mormon) mission in Hawaii when she was 21 in the 60’s. I remember in college meeting students from Hawaii and asking them about Hawaiian Haystacks, and they were like “yah, that’s not a thing.” Turns out, guys, with a quick google search last week, it is indeed not a secret tropical recipe, inspired on her travels but instead a pretty American, (perhaps Mormon?), way of making a smorgasbord of toppings into “dinner”.

It’s a deconstructed DIY casserole that you “stack,” and the only must-haves are dried Chinese noodles and pineapple chunks (Hawaiian, see??). But I haven’t tried this dish as an adult. Will I even like it????? It doesn’t necessarily sound like something I’d opt for myself, so when I was looking at recipes I figured I’d make some substitutions for Brian and I, both of which failed. But that’s not really the point, is it?

My younger sister and her two kids (aged 6 months apart from mine) are with my parents in Portland, and in an attempt to connect to all of them (cousins included) we did a long hang out video session. You can do this a million different ways but I’m telling you that the Portal is awesome. This is absolutely NON-spon, but everyone asks why we use that instead of Zoom or Facetime and it’s because of the better video, better sound, and the fact that it tracks you better when you walk around. It’s way more “hanging out” than feeling like you are on a call. This particular hang out session lasted 2 hours and was VERY FUN.

I would say that my mom walked me through the recipe but its pretty darn easy so we more just chatted and caught up. Also when are Charlie’s teeth going to come in??? He lost his two front teeth months ago, and it is ADORABLE but the kid really wants to eat an apple. Anyway, all the grandkids (14 total) call my mom Mimi (who is about to be a great-grandma – CRAZY) and while we don’t get up to Portland nearly enough we are trying to make more of an effort to connect while staying home because these kids need to know their cousins and grandparents and phone calls don’t really cut it with 4 and 6 year olds.

Being at home like this has created some habits that we won’t give up. This girl LOVES to cook and she is intimidated by nothing. The other day she helped me make a falafel salad from start to finish, which took over an hour and I was in heave. As I’m putting on my apron, I hear a “can I help?” from the cutest little voice you’ll ever hear. She uses a kid’s knife and the crucial thing you need is a good stable step stool. We just bought some of these step stools so they each have one, but when they were littler and needed more stability we had one of these (that both kids used to be able to fit on but it is really big).

I’ve also developed some real braid skills as you can see below.

OK, back to them STACKS.

So I tried to tweak the recipe in two ways – I wanted to make my own cream of chicken rather than using a can (which we didn’t have) and Brian and I wanted to try it over cauliflower rice instead of normal rice. Both of which failed. Here’s a lesson I learned – almond flour doesn’t thicken. As I was mixing it with the milk I kept putting in more and more to try to thicken it, but it magically didn’t. I probably added close to 2 cups and it was still water-y, so finally I put a 1/4 cup of normal flour and it turned instantly into a thick gelatinous paste. It really was a lesson in food chemistry. It tasted delicious but the texture was TERRIBLE and it was hard to find the chicken. So next time I will still make my own cream of chicken because I liked having the garlic and onion in there, but I’ll use normal flour (unless any of you have better ideas that could be gluten-free?). The cauliflower rice I just let burn because I didn’t pay enough attention to it.

But the point wasn’t to learn a recipe, it was to create more casual hang out sessions with my family. I think it’s very easy to put off phone calls because they can feel like this ‘formal’ time to talk, so I’m trying to be way better at just hanging out, making it feel more every day and casual especially there isn’t too much to really fill anyone in on these days. My maiden name was Starke (Yes, I know that Emily Starke is much cooler than Emily Henderson) so obviously I renamed this to be the Hawaiian Hay-STARKE.



Listen these stacks are very up to interpretation. The important thing is rice on the bottom, a creamy chicken mixture then you basically just go for it with the toppings. I like a mixture of crunchy and soft, hot and cold, sweet and salty and of course we add hot sauce for whoever can handle it. You can make this as healthy or unhealthy as you want 🙂 

  • Author: Arthella and Katy Starke


  • 2 chicken breasts cooked and cut into small chunks or shredded, or grab one rotisserie chicken and shred
  • 1/2 white or sweet onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 cups steamed rice (any kind you like)
  • Frozen peas
  • Chopped celery
  • Chopped tomatoes (we love cherry)
  • Black olives
  • Nuts! we love crushed cashews
  • Shredded iceberg lettuce (or cabbage for cold crunch)
  • Chinese noodles
  • Fresh or canned pineapple
  • 2 cups cooked rice (or more depending on how many people). 


Despite me messing this up using almond flour, this recipe is extremely basic and has a lot of flexibility. Sauté the onion and garlic until fragrant, then add cream of chicken and sour cream, shredded or cooked chicken and salt and pepper to taste (1 tsp of each is good). Bring to boil, then simmer for as long as you like (it can be “done” pretty quickly. Meanwhile, chop all the toppings and put in separate bowls (this part is annoying to me because so many dishes to wash so I think someone needs to invent a special “Hawaiian Haystack” dish with like 10 compartments.). The fun is letting everyone build their own. Start with rice, add chicken mixture, and top it off however you want. Mix it or not – it’s DELICIOUS. 

Listen, the meal is good and fun and the kids LOVED it. If you build it “right” you get creamy, crunchy, hot, cold, sweet, and salty all in one bite which I blew my mind as a kid.

We were never the family that cooked three meals a day, but we sure do now, and while I really enjoyed our take out burger last night, I now really get what they mean when they say it’s “made with love.” Cooking as a family is a new habit that we won’t break, I PROMISE, and hanging out with extended family while we do it is an even easier way to connect that feels more meaningful.

Happy mothers day to my mom – mother of 6, grandmother of 14. I have no idea how you taught us all six of us to play piano, sew our own clothes, and can our own tuna – but we all are forever grateful for those skills (and all the love, time and care that went into making that happen). Someday I’ll convince Brian to let me continue the “canning tuna” tradition, but for now, I’ll just raid your pantry whenever I come home like I did in college. Hopefully, that is sooner than later. xx

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1 year ago

What a great tribute to your Mom, your kids and the other Moms that inspire you. Cooking with your kids is such a fantastic way to introduce them to so many life skills. Your daughter saying “Can I help?” is such a gentle reminder that you are raising kind, helpful, and polite kids and knowing that has got to be the best Mothers Day present ever!

PS not that you had it on hand, but you can try tapioca starch for gluten free thickening.

Aimee Graham
1 year ago

cornstarch is a classic thickener. widely available and cheap. Just use a little to start and make sure to whisk it into something cool (like water or stock that hasn’t been heated) before you add it into something hot – a slurry.

1 year ago
Reply to  Aimee Graham

Yes! I second this, but you need a lot less of cornstarch/cornflour than you would nirmal flour. You DO need to mix it into some water prior to adding it in as well.

Aimee Graham
1 year ago
Reply to  Rusty

Like I said…hahahaha

1 year ago

Lol, Hawaiian Haystacks are so Mormon, Emily. What’s next – Funeral Potatoes? Green Jello-O?

1 year ago

I had to look up the origins of this dish because it never occurred to me that this was a Mormon food that other people didn’t know about?! Turns out there is a Seventh-Day Adventist version that is more Mexican influenced and a Mennonite version with a hamburger tomato sauce. Fascinating!!!

1 year ago
Reply to  Emily

Honey, Hawaiian Haystacks are as Mormon as cardigans over strapless prom dresses and the term “every fiber of my being.”

1 year ago
Reply to  Emily

Yup, I was going to say that I have some 7th day Adventist family members and they ALWAYS have haystacks. But it’s not much like these. It’s vegan/vegetarian and I think rice is the only similarity. 🙂 We make what my SDA family calls haystacks…but to me it’s just taco salad–and is even different from yours and theirs, but still called haystacks. Love it.

(re: braiding skills, good work, and check out youtube’s “cute girls hairstyles” for some really great tutorials!)

1 year ago

Great post! Arrowroot is a good thickener.

Emily Honeycutt
1 year ago

Emily, I love Hawaiian haystacks! I have to be gluten free, for those who also have to be, here is a great alternative you can find at the store. You would probably need a few containers of it.
Pacific Soup, Condensed, Organic, Cream of Chicken.
You can find it at target and most local grocery stores.

1 year ago

Anytime I cook with toppings (tacos, rice bowls etc) I put tall the toppings on a big wooden chopping board in the middle of the table. It’s so easy and only one thing to clean.

1 year ago

Cooking fresh with kids is so fun. I grew up canning salmon with my family, catching shrimp, crab, and understanding that people and foods are connected. I’m determined for my son to have an upbringing that includes memories like mine and an appreciation for unprocessed food and nature. At 3, he’s already playing fisherman (so proud).
I hope your kids love the garden you are doing! Mine is already grazing the chives and picking pea leaves. He started eating huckleberry flowers this year, which I guess I’m fine with, because that is our understory here in the forest, but reminding him that each one he eats won’t turn into a berry later.

1 year ago

It’s so adorable to see how much the kids love cooking with their mom and hanging out with their family. But I would never buy a Facebook product, I’m just not a fan of their business model/ethics.

1 year ago

So nice to connect with family through food. It’s my number one way to feel close to family when we can’t be physically together.

As for a gluten-free thickener, gluten-free flour will thicken. I generally use Trader Joe’s gluten-free flour but Bob’s Redmill has a good one. I would choose the one that is brown rice based rather than chickpea based.

1 year ago

I love sharing recipes between generations! It’s often overlooked but really meaningful legacy. You should think about having your mom hand write a recipe card for each of her kids. Having her handwriting will be extra special.

1 year ago

Arrowroot flour is a great thickener…I use it more as a cornstarch substitute–it’s not a 1:1 substitute for flour, but could def do the trick here.

1 year ago

Cornstarch, agar powder, and tapioca flour are all gluten free thickeners. Look up a recipe for GF bechamel, and it will become the base in all your white sauces, gravies, cream soups, etc. It’s great in lasagna, makes a killer cheese sauce for mac & cheese or broccoli cheese soup, and easily transforms to vegan with unsweetened milk substitutes, if you lean that way. Add sausage and black pepper for biscuits and gravy, add potatoes and cheese for a gratin, add sour cream and beef for stroganoff, the uses are endless.

Roberta Davis
1 year ago

Catholics had no haystacks. Just fish on Fridays. I had no idea! I love that Birdie loves to cook and that you did it all together with your mom, sister and her kids! I guess a haystack is a great way to “casserole” for a large family where every kid hates something different! Kinda like a huge salad bar except rice instead of lettuce on the bottom! Modern interpretation- all those vegan bowls. Looks like you had the best mother’s Day, Emily!

1 year ago

Rice flour, tapioca flour, gluten-free flour blends that are not bean based, potato flour, arrowroot are all gluten free things that will thicken. If using cornstarch, add some to cold water (or cold liquid) and shake or stir until smooth, then add slowly to your hot liquid and stir constantly and cook until thickened. If you don’t need to thicken it a lot, try two egg yolks, beaten in a small dish or glass measuring cup, then add a small amount of hot liquid to egg yolks to temper them, stirring constantly, then add the tempered egg yolks slowly to your pan and stir constantly till thickened.

Great times with your mom, cousins, and kiddos. So nice to see your little with the cooking!

1 year ago
Reply to  elle

Canning tuna!?? Remarkable. It is so very nice to continue these family traditions.

1 year ago

We love Hawaiian haystacks at our house. In my family we use canned coconut milk in place of the cream of chicken. I add garlic, a bit of green curry paste, and a splash of soy sauce to flavor it.

1 year ago
Reply to  Kate

The coconut milk sounds like a great healthy substitute!

1 year ago

This is so sweet!! I have a recipe box that I am keeping for my daughter with some old fashioned recipes like this. Cherished memories!!

I use arrowroot powder or cornstarch as a substitute. But sometimes I will use organic sprouted flour since you don’t really need that much for thickening usually.

Arthella Starke
1 year ago

This was marvelously fun! The interactions of the cousins was an unexpected joy that cooking across the internet brought us. Emily’s creativity is manifest in so many ways and this idea turned out to be a real winner for the whole family.
Mom Starke

1 year ago

I think what you are doing is lovely. Another hang out idea would be to have the children do an art project, which would require some pre-planning and coordination.

1 year ago

Not only Mormon… we never ate these growing up, but my husband’s family does (“chicken haystack”) and my sister in law’s family (“Polynesian Pile On”). Toppings include pineapple and Chinese noodles, grated cheddar, green onions, soy sauce.

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