The Mid-Autumn Festival this year was last week, September 15. Many East Asian countries celebrate their own version of this– in China this holiday is called Zhōngqiū [中秋, literally “middle autumn”], while the Japanese equivalent holiday is referred to as Jūgoya [十五夜, “15th night”].
Growing up, this holiday was not really celebrated in my household. My mother made an effort to educate my sister and myself about Japanese culture but I feel like even in Japan, this holiday is not emphasized that much. However, thanks to my favorite Japanese children’s TV show Anpanman and the fact that I attended a Japanese pre-school, I am pretty aware of how Jugoya is celebrated.
In Japan, the Mid-Autumn festival is celebrated by partaking in tsukimi [月見, “moon viewing”] and eating a special dango that is white and spherical in appearance. Typically, these dango are stacked in a pyramidal fashion and displayed with some decorative grass, susuki. I know this sounds bizarre so the only way it can be explained is with a picture I stole from the internet (also, if you have an Apple device, you may notice that there is an emoji that shows jugoya decorations).
The result is quite picturesque, but the dango are usually kind of bland (they are very simple to make, at least). Because of the dango’s tastelessness (combined with the general Japanese apathy about the holiday) I never really celebrated Jugoya or cared about it.
This past labor day weekend I went back home to SoCal and I met my partner’s grandparents for the first time. They don’t speak much English (they emigrated from Taiwan), but thankfully I had learned 3 years of Chinese in high school and I was able to communicate with them somewhat. They were extremely sweet and I was glad I could meet them for the first time.
When my partner and I returned back to San Francisco, I kept reflecting back on our visit to his grandparents’ home and wanted to thank them for having me over. During our visit, they served me some black sesame Chinese mooncakes, which are an integral part of Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations.
Chinese mooncakes are pastries, often with beautiful designs up top, that are covered in a thin “skin” (either flour based, rice based, some modern ones even have puff pastry on the outside) and an intensely rich filling. Traditional recipes have some kind of paste filling (red bean, lotus seed paste, etc.) with a salted egg yolk. This is the “most” traditional type but honestly I find the egg yolk somewhat off putting and apparently most of the “youths” spurn the traditional preparation.
Anyway, I realized that the Mid-Autumn Festival was coming up– and then the idea came to my mind.
I told my partner that I was going to make Chinese mooncakes from scratch, and send them to his grandparents in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Chinese mooncakes are so much more fun and prettier than Jugoya dango. The first time I was “celebrating” the Mid-Autumn Festival was done so in the Chinese way.
Anyway getting back to my conversation with my partner re: homemade mooncakes. We’ve been dating for three years now, so he’s used to my ridiculous antics now and seemed really amused by the idea of someone actually making mooncakes. Giving mooncakes to family and friends is requisite in celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival, yet most people just buy them from bakeries or the grocery store. No one really makes it themselves!
This made me even more resolute in making mooncakes to send to his family. As the child of an inter-cultural marriage, I know how important it is for each member of the couple to make significant efforts in understanding and participating in their partner’s cultural traditions, especially when senior members of their family are involved. Making mooncakes was the perfect idea because:
- Accomplishes my initial goal of thanking his family for their hospitality
- Conveys I am actively participating in their cultural practices
- Shows off my ~domestic~ skills
That was my thought, anyway. Turns out there’s a reason why people don’t make their own mooncakes!
Making the Mooncakes
I had conceived the idea of sending his family mooncakes shortly after Labor Day (September 5th). I needed time to acquire the specialized ingredients, actually make the mooncakes, and figure out how to mail them so they would arrive by September 15th (the actual date of the Mid-Autumn Festival). I concluded I needed to send it out sometime on Monday (September 12th). Since I tend to be pretty busy during the work week, this meant I pretty much only had the weekend to make them. I thought it’d be fine though, I’m pretty good at cooking, how hard could it be?
Step 1: Acquiring Ingredients and Tools
I had looked up some recipes online about making mooncakes, and found this extremely detailed recipe by a blogger named Maggie. However I was initially put off by how complex it was and decided to go with Ann Coo’s recipe instead. Putting the filling aside, just the exterior “skin” of the mooncakes when preparing the traditional kind (opposed to the “snow skin” or puff pastry type) has two pretty specialized ingredients that have special ~chemistry~:
- golden syrup (invert sugar syrup)
- lye water (kansui, or jian shui [梘水])
Golden syrup is the sweetener that is used in traditional recipes. But what is invert sugar? Let’s rehash some high school biology— when most people refer to “sugar” they are referring to the disaccharide sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (composed of two monosaccharides), and it contains glucose and fructose. Inversion (when used in chemistry and especially referring to sugar), refers to the splitting of the disaccharide sugar into its two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. This process can be done with enzymes or by introducing heat and an acid. The presence of the monosaccharides makes invert sugar much more hygroscopic (moisture-attracting) than regular table sugar. There are some pretty popular brands for this (Lyle’s is at the best known in the UK) and you can buy this from Amazon. I couldn’t find it in the Asian grocery store when I went though, so I used honey as a substitute.
Lye water is an alkaline solution, aka “potassium carbonate & sodium bi-carbonate solution”. You might notice one part of its name includes the chemical composition for baking soda, but you’re probably thinking “what is potassium carbonate, and why is it in a food item”. Despite its intense name, lye water is used in a fair amount of Asian cooking (though honestly most Asian people probably don’t know about it)— it is used in preparing ramen noodles and a lot of Asian baking, including mooncakes. In particular lye water gives food items a golden color (this is why ramen noodles are yellow), and it’s how mooncakes get their characteristic honey-colored hue. I was surprised that my local Asian supermarket carried this item (it is quite niche!) but it did so I was quite happy about that.
The reason why chemistry is important in mooncake baking is the combination of the lye water and the golden syrup. You may have noticed that I mentioned golden syrup is the result of an acidic process, and lye water is an alkaline solution. Invert sugar products (such as molasses, golden syrup) retain moisture, and thus allow for a moist and pliable cake (despite the thin skin) where patterns can be pressed in. Most honeys tends to be acidic as well, so provided you don’t mind the flavor and fragrance difference, it works as a substitute. The lye water neutralized the acidity of the golden syrup (so the skin won’t be sour) and gives the characteristic color. Obviously you could use baking soda to neutralize the acidity of the golden syrup as well, but it won’t “look” like a mooncake (the cake will be pale).
But basically this is why you cannot make traditional mooncakes with table sugar and baking soda. You need a super moisture-retaining cake (so the cake won’t tear/crack when you press in patterns and also so it has a nice texture), so you must use invert sugars (honey is a natural source). And since invert sugars are acidic, it needs to be neutralized with an alkaline solution. Lye water kills two birds with one stone by both neutralizing the acid in the sugar and provides the nice color.
Of course the filling of traditional mooncakes are pretty specialized ingredients too! Typical fillings include salted duck egg yolks, red bean paste, lotus-seed paste, and black-sesame paste. While I was research the subject I came across an “uber traditional” filling known as “5 kernels and roast pork” (wuren chashao, [五仁叉燒]). I have never had or heard about this filling myself, but it basically is a mixture of 5 different types of nuts and Chinese-style roast pork. Pretty much all of this ingredients can be found in an Asian grocery store though, and I purchased red bean paste and lotus-seed paste for my mooncakes.
And let’s not forget— those beautiful patterns on mooncakes are not made by hand (or maybe some people do, I don’t know). I needed to get my hands on a mooncake mold. Traditional molds are made out of wood and require you to press the mooncakes into a recess in the mold. Other molds are made out of metal or silicone, and some molds (like the one I got) are plastic “injection” types. This is probably the easiest for beginners. I was able to get mine from a local Chinese cookware store, The Wok Shop. You can also buy a variety of molds from Amazon (what can’t you buy from Amazon?)
But the moral of this story is that traditional mooncakes require either a lot of substitutions or a lot of searching for specialized items. I didn’t even go over all the ingredients—one recipe called for “Hong Kong flour”, which is a super-bleached, super de-glutened flour (which I couldn’t find)— but you get the idea.
By the time I had acquired all of the necessary ingredients it was Sunday afternoon on September 11th! I only had one try to bake the mooncakes to be able to mail out in time.
Step 2: Baking
I won’t detail all the steps of baking, but will go over some key moments. Most recipes you find online for mooncake skin have very very specific weight based measurements to the gram. Adhering to them is key! Since you actually don’t need that much skin per pastry (the thinner the better), the amount of dough you make is quite small and measurements must be precise. And as mentioned before, some very specific chemistry goes on when you make mooncakes. Thus a kitchen scale is a must.
Measuring out the ingredients and combing it wasn’t all that hard— you don’t need any fancy implements or use any advanced cooking techniques (unlike in a lot of French confections).
Making the fillings was fun too. I decided to make two fillings— both were inspired by traditional ingredients but each had a fun twist! I made Red Bean paste with Nutella filling, and Lotus Seed Paste with passion fruit jam and dehydrated pineapple. I really liked both fillings, but I made a grave mistake with both.
Since I was making the fillings on the fly with no recipe, both of the fillings ended up being quite goopy. This was my biggest mistake. If you ever plan on making mooncakes, the filling must be quite firm and capable of being rolled into a ball, and cannot be too soft! The filling must provide adequate “resistance” to the mooncake mold, otherwise the pattern does not show through very well and you must compensate for the squishiness of the filling by thickening the skin of the mooncake (big no-no).
I could see that my mooncakes were not looking so good at this point— the filling-to-skin ratio was not good (some mooncakes were more skin than filling!) and the patterns were BARELY showing. At this point I was pretty distressed— I was going to send these to my partner’s grandparents in an attempt to IMPRESS them with my cooking skills, not have them take pity on Winston for having such a poor cook as a partner!
But none the less, I forged on. At the end of the baking, I was able to make two mooncakes that vaguely showcased the pattern, and those were the two I sent to his grandparents. But my mooncake saga was not yet over.
Reflections and Trials 2 and 3
Even after I mailed his family the mooncakes (and they were really happy I sent them), I felt dissatisfied. I couldn’t believe how poorly I did the first time, so I resolved to do two things:
- If I’m going to send a food item as a gift, practice the recipe before hand
- Keep making mooncakes until I am satisfied with the result
So that Wednesday I tried again. This time I used Maggie’s recipe for the skin and followed her advices about the fillings. I cooked out a fair amount of water from the red bean paste on the stove (so it became fairly hard), mixed in some cornstarch with the Nutella, and added in butter (oil/fat is needed to seep out of the filling into the skin as the days pass, making the skin softer and more pleasant– a process known as hui you – 回油).
This produced a much better looking result, but I was still not satisfied. The mooncakes were quite flat (not enough filling) and the pattern was not super crisp. Also the addition of the cornstarch in the filling somewhat affected the flavor and made it have a grainy texture.
So I tried again one more time a few days later. I used the same recipe for the skin, but this time I had golden syrup instead of honey. I had no more red bean paste left so I used the remaining lotus seed paste, but this time I cooked out even more liquid from the paste so it was truly very hard. I increased the amount of filling per cake significantly (so the mooncakes were much taller). And lastly I had my partner press the pattern into the mooncakes— and thats when I found out you need to truly apply significant pressure into the cakes to get the pattern to show up well. I realized I had been a little too timid when it came to forcing the mooncakes into the mold. The result was a near perfect mooncake with beautifully visible patterns.
For each round, I kept one mooncake so I could photograph my progress. As you can see, I came a long way!
All in all, I feel quite confident in making my mooncakes for next year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. I hope in the interim I can come up with some truly inventive fillings, and ACTUALLY showcase my cooking abilities.
I have come to realize though why most people don’t make mooncakes at home. While the recipes seem quite simple, there are a lot of subtleties to it, many of which are probably even less obvious to someone who did not grow up consuming Chinese mooncakes (i.e. me). The ingredients are quite niche… and actually quite unhealthy! Ignorance is probably bliss when it comes to mooncakes.
As mentioned briefly before, the filling must have a fair amount of oil or fat in them. Right after baking, the exterior of the mooncake is quite hard and tough. You actually don’t consume mooncakes right after cooking them— you need to wait a few days for the oil to “surface” (hui you – 回油) so you need a fair amount of fat. Very traditional preparations even use lard for this.
But it’s not even the fat content of the filling— most of these fillings have insane sugar contents! The lotus seed paste I purchased from the store had a whopping 225g (500g was the total weight of the package) of sugar! Obviously I could make the paste myself next time to make it healthier, but the paste I bought didn’t even taste that sweet at all, which made me realize how much sugar is necessary to make these fillings palatable.
Making your own mooncakes is hard and requires some very specialized ingredients. But even if they don’t look so good everyone will think you are a ~dutiful~ child.
Practice makes perfect.
Sources: Serious Eats on Sugar