diy mooncakes for mid-autumn festival [中秋]

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).

White Dango are stacked in a pyramid shape, next to a vase with decorative grass.

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.

However

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:

  1. Accomplishes my initial goal of thanking his family for their hospitality
  2. Conveys I am actively participating in their cultural practices
  3. 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:

  1. If I’m going to send a food item as a gift, practice the recipe before hand
  2. 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).

The second round of mooncakes in the oven.
second round in the oven

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!

Three mooncakes in a row. The one on the left is misshapen and does not have a clear pattern. The middle mooncake has a slightly more visible pattern. The right most one has a clearly visible pattern, and looks most "mooncake-like"

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.

A picture of the nutrition facts of store-bought lotus seed paste. It contains 225 grams of sugar in 500 g packet
Note how the lotus seed paste (500g) package contains 225 grams of sugar!!

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.

tldr;

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

Ann Coo’s Mooncake Recipe

Omnivore’s Cookbook (Maggie’s) Recipe

 

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hating vegetables and drinking them

I really, really dislike vegetables. Specifically dark, leafy greens. From a young age, I absolutely loathed dark leafy greens to the the point where my mother would keep me at the dinner table for hours unless I finished eating them. What I would then do was a) pretend to eat them and instead store them in  my mouth and b) conveniently have to go to the bathroom right after and c) spit out the greens into the trashcan in the bathroom.

My mother later discovered my scheme and I was henceforth banned from using the bathroom during dinner.

Many years have passed since then, but my attitude towards greens hasn’t improved much. I have come to begrudgingly accept the fact that green vegetables are a vital part of a nutritive diet.

I still hate the way they taste though, which is why lately I have been perfecting a green smoothie that masks the taste of the vegetables. For all my fellow veggie-haters out there, this recipe is for you!

Ingredients

  • 3 dino kale leaves
  • 1 cup of baby spinach (a large handful of spinach)
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 1 apple
  • 3 ripe strawberries
  • 1/3 cup of mango or pineapple chunks (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon of matcha green tea powder
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened milk of your choice (dairy, almond, soy, etc)
  • lemon juice to taste

Procedure

  1. Remove the center ribs from the kale leaves, and then roughly chop. Set aside.
  2. De-core the apple, then dice into big chunks. Roughly chop strawberries and banana.
  3. I use frozen mangos (it’s cheaper to buy frozen) but feel free to add a little bit of other fruit. Pineapple works well too.
  4. Depending on the size of your blender, place all the non-liquid ingredients (except for lemon juice) in your blender. My blender is on the smaller side, so I blend about half of the ingredients first, then add the other half.
  5. Pour in your milk into the blender. I sometimes use unsweetened kefir, which is a yogurt-like drink. It gives the smoothie a nice tanginess.
  6. Press blend and puree to your desired consistency! My blender is on the older side, so this takes a minute or so to get a nice smoothie.
  7. Check the taste, and if you desire some more tanginess, add a couple drops of lemon juice.

I like this recipe because despite having zero added sugars, the smoothie is sweet and appetizing! The matcha helps give me a mild caffeine kick, and this smoothie is basically a complete breakfast. Most of the time I drink it for breakfast by itself– it’s actually a lot of food! On this particular day, I added some chopped strawberries on top of the smoothie and drank it alongside some papaya.

Some days I make the smoothie vegan by using unsweetened soymilk in the place of kefir as the base liquid. What I like about this recipe is that it is very substitution friendly. Have no apples but pears? Use pears in the place of apple! Have no banana? Increase the amount of mangos to make up for the lost creaminess that the banana provides. Basically just add your favorite things ^_^ to make the recipe suit your taste.

waffling around

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

As you can see from this picture above, I lied about eating more healthily. Actually, maybe I didn’t. It’s healthier to cook at home versus going out to eat, so I’ve succeeded in that sense.

Anyway, the Boyfriend cooked up a large batch of my favorite fried chicken for dinner for Davis on Thursday night. He didn’t cook it all though since only about 10-15 people show up for dinner, so there was still some raw chicken with marinade leftover.

Come Friday morning. I realize that Davis has a waffle press, but I have never used it. (In fact, I have never used a waffle press to actually cook a waffle). With great elation and joy, we had a totally indulgent brunch of fried chicken and waffles (okay, so maybe I totally have failed at this “healthy thing”).

He took a nibble out of his waffle already...
He took a nibble out of his waffle already…

He fried the chicken, I made the waffles. Since I’ve never actually made waffles before, I googled “simple waffle recipe” and found this gem. With almost 2000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating, I figured it would be good. The waffles turned out perfectly. Not too salty, not too sweet, but I recommend changing those measurements around depending on what you’re eating it with. When I made the waffles for the fried chicken, I cut back slightly on the sugar to make a more savory waffle. When I made waffles this morning for breakfast (the recipe was so good I wanted to try it again) I used the recommended amount of sugar and had waffles with strawberries, whipped cream cheese and syrup.

Yeah, I really fail at this healthy thing. Whatever #yolo

Perfect Waffles

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup of butter (melted, shouldn’t be too hot)
  • 1 3/4 cup of milk
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar (add more for a sweeter waffle)
  • 4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt (add more for a more savory waffle)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Heat up waffle iron.
  2. Beat eggs in a large bowl until very fluffy.
  3. Combine the rest of the ingredients in the bowl until just mixed.
  4. Grease the surface of the waffle iron, whatever this means to you. Could be spraying a non-stick cooking spray, or you could apply butter on the surfaces of the pan.
  5. Pour around 1/2 – 3/4 cup of batter into the iron and close it. The waffles will poof up quite a bit. Cook until golden brown. Serve immediately.*

*If you’re making a bunch at once and can’t serve them right as they’re being made, place the waffles onto folded paper towels. Replace the paper towels often as they will absorb quite a bit of moisture and make the waffle less crisp.

trying to do that “healthy” thing

healthy person dinner that has more vegetables than I’m comfortable with.

I’m always incredibly conflicted about what sort of lifestyle I should lead. It changes from week to week, but sometimes I might revert back to a “lifestyle” I’ve already tried. Let’s be a hermit and talk to no one! Let’s be a party girl. Let’s eat nothing but deep-fried foods! Let’s do that healthy thing!

As you can probably tell, I’m pretty bad at sticking to one thing (the only thing that I’ve stuck to is purchasing only “ethical” clothing items– i.e. no child/slave labor, everyone’s getting a fair wage, etc.)

But one lifestyle (I hate using this word, I sound like a health magazine or something) that I keep coming back to is “the healthy one.” Whether it’s because I live in a cooperative that purchases only organic produce or because I live in the Bay Area where everyone is all about that all-natural artisanal this-that, I have no clue.

So right now we are in healthy mode (which means boring recipes and no fun and no parties) and so I went to Yoga to the People for their 6 o’clock class yesterday. It was in their beautiful new studio. We can discuss the appropriation of yoga later ahahhaa.  Post-yoga, I whipped up a “very reasonable dinner”. Sorry there are no precise measurements for this “recipe” (if you can call me mixing food in a bowl a recipe), but you should adjust the quantities of things to your preference.

 “Very Reasonable Dinner” (yellow/green edition)

Ingredients:

  • Cooked Black Beans or frijoles negro
  • Cooked Brown Rice
  • Baby Kale leaves
  • Avocado
  • Yellow Bell Pepper
  • Brown Mushrooms
  • Egg
  • Monterrey Jack Cheese
  • Butter

Start cooking the egg, I recommend sunny-side up. While that’s happening, shred the cheese and heat up the brown rice with the shredded cheese. Place the warm brown rice and cheese into a large bowl, top with the cooked egg. Using the same pan that you cooked the egg in, saute mushrooms and sliced bell pepper with just a little bit of butter. Cook until bell peppers just start to brown. Place sliced avocado, baby kale leaves and cooked vegetables into the bowl with the brown rice and egg. Serve immediately.