Melissa Cohen's crunchy caramel cookie comes in three sizes. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)
Melissa Cohen's crunchy caramel cookie comes in three sizes. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)

It’s Passover in August with her irresistibly crispy, crunchy cookies

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Melissa Cohen has a secret ingredient in her caramel crunch cookies that no one would ever guess: matzah.

In the commercial kitchen where she operates her San Francisco-based cookie business, Salty Sweet, she has boxes of it stacked high to the ceiling. She makes a run to numerous supermarkets for matzah each year just after Passover, when the cost of the five-pound boxes has been drastically discounted, and tries to buy enough to last through the next year.

“I’m petrified of running out. It would ruin my numbers,” she quipped.

The story of how matzah came to be a necessary ingredient in Cohen’s cookies started eight years ago when she launched her business and decided she would make matzah caramel crunch for Passover. While cutting the sheets into squares, all of the little matzah shards fell to the wayside. Rather than tossing them and wasting perfectly good food, she put them into a cookie — and the caramel crunch cookie was born.

“It’s actually the perfect ingredient for it,” she said. “I stick to all-natural ingredients, and no preservatives, and matzah of course is only flour and water. It also works well in that it’s already stale when you get it.”

Melissa Cohen is the baker behind Salty Sweet. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)
Melissa Cohen is the baker behind Salty Sweet. (Photo/Lisa Leach)

The caramel crunch cookie is her second-best seller, next to chocolate chip cookies. She sells her matzah caramel crunch year-round. Some customers like it so much, she said, they’ve given it as Christmas gifts.

Cohen grew up in Manhattan, where she thought everyone was Jewish like her, and where visits to Zabar’s made a favorite early food memory. But she never thought of a career in food, and went on to work in the financial world. From the get-go, she pretty much hated it.

“I didn’t even think I could like a job,” she said. “I thought everyone who did was faking it. My favorite part of the day was discussing what we’d have for lunch with my team.”

Meanwhile, in her free time she developed her passion for baking. A cookie lover, she said she often felt disappointed by the chocolate chip cookies she bought. So she set out to perfect her own. She went off a New York Times recipe touted as the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and continued to tweak it until she felt she had elevated the cookie even further. When she brought some to work, her boss told her she should start a bakery.

After some fits and starts in the finance world, she began working out of her home kitchen, baking just a few cookies at a time. It was 2012 when she decided to make a full-time go of it. At the time, online food delivery services like Munchery and Good Eggs were just starting up. When Munchery ordered 400 cookies at once to hand out to new customers, Cohen made the move into a commercial kitchen.

As the business name Salty Sweet attests, she strives for a perfectly balanced cookie: sweet with the perfect amount of salt, a satisfying crunch around the edges and a soft center.

Melissa Cohen’s matzah caramel crunch gave birth to the caramel crunch cookie. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)
Melissa Cohen’s matzah caramel crunch gave birth to the caramel crunch cookie. (Photo/Courtesy Cohen)

“I think I’ve tried all the cookies out there, and I really believe they are the best one,” she said. She makes a few different flavors, including cinnamon and dark chocolate, as well as gluten-free and vegan versions. “I don’t believe you need to have a bajillion flavors. I’m not reinventing the wheel.” Cohen is a stickler for ingredients and even makes her own vanilla.

Before the pandemic, half of her sales came from an unlikely source: the airport. (Specifically, Klein’s Deli and Napa Farms at SFO.) She also had quite a few corporate accounts, with tech companies that bought cookies for their employees. With all of those dried up, she’s been marketing directly to consumers. Currently she’s offering kits so people can make their own cookies at home with her premade dough. Cookies are also sold on the website, along with a variety of gift boxes.

Without the reliability of the corporate accounts, Cohen never knows how business will be from week to week. She said word of mouth and repeat customers are keeping her afloat.

Pre-Covid, she had been planning to move into a larger kitchen, and now is glad she didn’t. She’s just happy to be able to keep her employees working.

“I don’t know how it all happens, but I’m grateful that it does,” Cohen said. “While we haven’t been flourishing in this situation, just the fact that we are making enough sales to keep my employees is a small victory right now.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."