Monday, September 9, 2019

It's Moon Cake time!

This Friday is the Moon Festival, or Zhongqiu jie (Mid-Autumn Festival) as they call it in Chinese. When it comes to food, this day means one thing and one thing only: moon cakes.

Up until only a few years ago, I had tackled the other two of the big three Chinese holidays - Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Festival - and to be honest, I really didn't break a sweat when it came to those foods. I'd been making those dishes most of my married life, and not to boast, but after over three decades in a Chinese household, I probably could wrap a rice tamale blindfolded with the same ease that a Sandinista could assemble a semiautomatic weapon in the dark on a moonless night. 

But one holiday food eluded me successfully... until now, that is.
My assorted molds

A homemade moon cake was one of those quixotic passions that poked its head up irritatingly on schedule once a year when I looked at the burgeoning displays of garish moon cake boxes in the Chinese grocery and dreaded the looming onslaught of pastries that were too sweet, too greasy, to old, and too filled with chemicals - not to mention too too too expensive - but which I'd have to deal with anyway because it's just part of the Moon Festival, sort of like the dreaded fruitcakes and Christmas hard candies of my childhood.

You see, I was spoiled. I knew what a perfect moon cake was supposed to taste like, but the stuff in the stores could never hold a candle to my idea of the ultimate moon cake: During my initial year in Taiwan, the mom in my host family handed me a freshly baked coconut moon cake on the Moon Festival. That was, of course, also my very first moon cake, and nothing ever measured up to it in the succeeding decades. 

It was time for all that to change.

So, a couple of years ago I gave myself a self-imposed challenge: make moon cakes as good as Auntie Lee's. This was not easy, and the search for this recipe possessed me for a very long time. The problem was that no cookbook in either Chinese or English (except for the one by Sichuan master chef Chen Kenmin) had a recipe that was much help. 
Nabbing a wedge

What I wanted was crumbly, light, ever-so-slightly chewy cookie dough wrapped around luscious fillings. This was trial and lots of error, but let me tell you, these are the best moon cakes ever!

More on this subject to come over the coming posts. For now, I am going to whet your appetite with a nutty filling that a Nanjing friend said made the absolute best moon cake he had tasted. And although that was a couple of years ago, I still bask in the warm glow of that compliment. 

Today's moon cake recipe is Cantonese on the surface, but it envelops a Suzhou-style crunchy nut and fruit center. It was adapted from the repertoire of renowned Sichuanese chef Chen Kenmin 陳建民. (His son, Chen Ken’ichi 陳建一, later gained fame as “Iron Chef Chinese” on the Japanese and American programs, Iron Chef.)

Be warned, homemade moon cakes are as different from store-bought as night and day, but few Chinese make their own anymore, perhaps because a good recipe has (at least until now) been hard to find.

Although the recipe may appear long, don’t be discouraged — it’s not difficult. And it produces moon cakes that are fresh, flavorful and not overly sweet, with caramel syrup deepening the colors and aromas. Dark brown sugar and butter are used in the center instead of the usual white sugar and lard in this updated version, and both dried cranberries and green pumpkin seeds glitter like colorful sequins, adding gently tart and nutty touches to these beloved pastries. The drawings are, of course, from All Under Heaven.

Fruit and nut moon cakes 
Wǔrén yuèbǐng 五仁月餅  
Makes 10 large (three-inch) moon cakes, or about 30 (one-inch) mini moon cakes

Caramel syrup:
2½ cups | 300 g powdered sugar
1 cup | 250 ml water (divide in half)
3 tablespoons white rice vinegar or cider vinegar

Fruit and nut filling:
25 large dried red Chinese dates
1 cup  | 250 ml waterwater
½ cup | 60 g hulled pumpkin seeds
¼ cup | 30 g dried cranberries or golden raisins
¾ cup | 90 g chopped toasted walnuts
½ cup | 70 g toasted sesame seeds
½ cup | 60 g sliced almonds
¼ cup | 60 ml Chinese rose-scented white liquor (Meiguilu), or vodka
2 tablespoons caramel syrup (recipe above)
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup | 50 g dark brown sugar, packed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon sticky rice flour (Mochiko brand recommended)

2 cups | 260 g all purpose flour
⅔ cup | 80 g pastry or cake flour 
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon | 190 ml caramel syrup
½ cup | 125 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Extra flour as needed

1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons Chinese rose-scented white liquor (Meiguilu), or vodka
1 tablespoon caramel syrup

1. To make the caramel syrup, place the powdered sugar and ½ cup water in a steel pan (so that you can easily see the sugar change color). Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, cover for a few minutes so that the steam washes down the sugar crystals, and then uncover. Add the vinegar and bring the pan back to a boil without stirring. Quickly boil the sugar syrup for about 10 minutes, until it starts to turn amber. When it is an even golden brown, lower the heat to medium-high and then add the rest of the water – be careful, as the caramel will boil furiously at this point, so direct the pan away from your face. As the boiling starts to simmer down, stir the caramel with a silicone spatula until the caramel is smooth. Pour the caramel into a heatproof measuring cup and let it cool to room temperature; you should have about 1¼ cups | 310 ml.

Pat into the mold
2. For the filling, cook the dates in the water until they are soft and the water has been absorbed. Remove the dates from the heat, and when cool enough to handle, pit them if they are not already pitted. Carefully chop them into a fine paste, using a knife so that you can remove any pits or shards that you come across. Place the date paste in a medium work bowl. Add the rest of the filling ingredients to the date paste and mix well. Divide it into 10 even mounds if you are making large moon cakes or 30 small mounds if you are making the mini cakes. (You may make the filling ahead of time and refrigerate it covered.)

3. To make the dough, place the flour in a medium work bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil and caramel. Mix these together gently to form a very soft dough. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons flour on a smooth work surface and roll the dough out into an even 20-inch rope; cut this into 10 pieces, each 2 inches wide. (If you are making the mini cakes, roll it into an even 15-inch rope and cut it into ½-inch pieces.) Roll each piece into a soft ball; cover the dough you are not immediately working on.

Knock out the moon cake
4. Heat the oven to 325°F | 160°C; place a rack in the upper third of the oven to keep the bottoms of the pastries from burning; you will cook one sheet of pastries at a time. Line two cookie sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Mix together the glaze; have two pastry brushes, a thin spatula, your moon cake mold, and a pastry scraper ready. Dust the inside of your moon cake mold heavily with flour and knock out the excess.

5. Large moon cakes: Working on one pastry at a time, pat out one piece of dough into a 5½-inch | 14 cm circle, making the center slightly mounded; place a portion of the filling in the center and wrap the dough around the filling. Lightly roll the now large ball between your palms so that the soft dough evenly covers the filling. Roll one side of the ball in some flour and then place the ball flour side down inside the moon cake mold. Press lightly but firmly on the ball so that it fills the mold. Then, turn the mold upside-down and whack it on your counter to release the pastry; it may take a few tries before it comes loose. Place the pastry on the prepare cookie sheet. Use one pastry brush to dust off any excess flour and use the other pastry brush to coat the moon cake all over with the glaze; repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 10 moon cakes. Small moon cakes: Do the same thing as above, only roll the dough out into circles about 3 inches | 8 cm wide; the filling should be rolled into balls roughly 1 inch | 2 cm in diameter.

6. Bake the moon cakes until they are a golden brown, around 25 minutes for the small cakes and 35-40 minutes for the large ones. Cool the pastries completely and serve them cut in wedges, preferably with cups of hot tea.
The. Absolute. Best.


The best Chinese dates are found in herbal shops where the turnover is fast and the dried ingredients are at their best. Look for plump, shiny dates with no sign of insects or powder at the bottom of the bag.

Chinese dates that are sold as “pitted” were done so by machines, so beware of the occasional pit or chips.

The dough is best made by hand, as food processors and mixers will excite the gluten in the flour and make the pastry tough. And, both patting out the dough and rolling it between the hands softens the caramel in it so it becomes more malleable.

If you don’t have such a mold (which can easily be found online or sometimes in Chinese housewares shops), you can use any other 3-inch cake mold, or even a plain cupcake mold to shape the pastries. (Note: true round moon cake molds are about 1¼ inches deep and 3 inches across, while the smaller molds with three 1-inch-square depressions can be used for mini moon cakes; shallower ones than that are used for making confections like green bean tea cakes, or lüdou gao.)

Moon cake molds come in many sizes and shapes. You can make moon cakes in just about any that are deep enough to hold two layers of pastry plus a generous layer of filling, which means at least 1-inch deep. The larger round molds I use have a little over a half cup capacity, while the small square ones hold about two tablespoons.

This pastry has a high sugar content, so to protect the bottoms of the moon cakes from burning before the pastries are completely cooked, place the racks in the upper third of your oven and use either double-thick sheets or two baking sheets placed on top each other for extra insulation.

Store the cooled moon cakes in a covered container. They can be preserved for longer storage if packed in freezer bags and frozen.

Illustrations from All Under Heaven (McSweeney's + Ten Speed Press, Spring 2016)
Copyright (c) 2015, Carolyn Phillips

Monday, September 2, 2019

Heavenly double pineapple buns

Pineapple buns are an iconic part of any good Taiwanese style bakery, but the fact that there is never any pineapple inside them has puzzled and, to be frank, annoyed the heck out of me for years and years.

I decided recently that it was high time I did something about this. And I have to admit, this was a no-brainer, and in fact is totally easy. All you really need to do is make some pineapple filling.

Now, as the weather gradually turns cooler, I thought some ginger would be really good in there. No cinnamon or nutmeg, thank you… I have had enough of the uber-prevalent pumpkin spice that insinuates itself into just about everything nowadays from early October until someone just after Thanksgiving decides to sub in oodles of sinus-clearing peppermint. 

A nice blob of pineapple jam
Instead, we have in here a good pinch of my favorite spice, a dribble of honey in both the filling and the bread, some freshly ground black pepper to add a touch of mystery, and a dollop of butter to keep things really luscious.

You can, of course, use ready-made pineapple filling or even pineapple preserves here. I just find those a bit too sweet. However, use what’s available and what you like—that’s always most important. Plus, you can always tweak them with lemon juice and spices to (literally) tart them up. It’s your call.

Do note that I've updated that previous recipe here. Just some little tweaks in the ingredients and directions, but the results are really fantastic, especially if you can enjoy them right out of the oven. 

Pinch the bun closed
Like all the Taiwanese breads I’ve been promoting lately, these are fantastic to keep on hand for whenever friends pop by or you get a tad hungry. They really freeze well and don’t stick together. Just be careful not to stack anything on top of them, as the brittle cookie dough might get crushed. Not the end of the world, but still.

Heavenly double pineapple buns
Fènglíxiàn bōluó bāo 鳳梨餡菠蘿包
Taiwan, kind of
Makes 16 buns

2 (20 ounce | 600 g) cans unsweetened crushed pineapple
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
The correct "fried egg" shape
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 60 ml honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk
1 tablespoon bread yeast
¼ cup | 85 g honey
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
1½ teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons | ¼ stick unsalted butter, softened

Cookie dough:
2 sticks (1 cup | 120 g) unsalted butter, softened
Cook the pineapple down
6 tablespoons | 80 g sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1½ cups | 240 g unbleached bread flour

1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water
Water, as needed

1. First make the filling: Empty the cans into a medium saucepan, preferably stainless steel so that you can keep an eye on the color of the pineapple. Cook the pineapple and juice down over medium-high heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. As the liquid recedes, be sure to stir and scrape the pan so that the natural sugars in the juice don’t burn. They will begin to caramelize, though, which is really nice, so lower the heat as needed. Once the pineapple is a golden color, add the spices, salt, honey, and butter, and continue to stir over medium-low heat until the pineapple mixture is thick. Let the filling cool while you prepare the bread and cookie doughs. This will give you about 2 cups | 475 ml of pineapple jam, and you can prepare this step far in advance, if you like; just refrigerate or freeze it for later.

Flatten the cookie dough with bags
2. Now make the bread dough: Place the water in a medium work bowl, add the yeast, powdered milk, and honey, and let the yeast soften and bloom while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Using a food processor, stand mixer with a hook attachment, or just a bowl with a wooden spoon, stir in the egg, flour, salt, and butter, and then knead to form a sticky dough, adding more flour as needed, until it is soft and tensile. Clean and dry a work bowl, form the dough into a smooth ball, and place it in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until it is double in bulk. Punch it down, turn it over, and cover again until it is again double in size.

3. Now for the cookie dough: As soon as the bread dough is getting its first rise, use a food processor, stand mixer, or hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar together until light. Add the egg and flour, and then mix until smooth. Scrape the cookie dough into a smaller container, cover, and chill for at least an hour. 

4. Line two baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper. Divide the bread dough into 16 balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and fill every one with about 2 tablespoons of the pineapple jam. Pinch the dough around the jam as if you were making a baozi. Smooth the pinched area, making sure that the jam is securely sealed inside the dough. Turn the filled bun over so the smooth side is on top and shape it into a slightly flattened ball about 3 inches | 7.5 cm wide. Arrange 8 buns on each of the baking sheets. Brush each of the buns with the egg wash.

5. Prepare 2 small plastic sandwich bags and set one of them (if the bag has a fold, put that side on the bottom) on a wet washcloth on your work surface, as the cloth will help prevent the plastic from sliding around. Divide the cookie dough into 16 even pieces and roll these into balls. Try to use only your fingers and the heel of your hand, rather than your palm, as these will not warm up the dough.  

Dabbed with water
6. Place a ball of cookie dough on the plastic bag, cover it with the other bag, and press down on the dough with the heel of your hand to form a wide disc about 3 inches | 7.5 cm wide. Drape the disc over one of the balls of bread dough and pat the edges against the bread. Repeat with the rest of the cookie dough until all of the buns have been covered..

7. Dip a plastic pastry scraper in flour and make 4 even lines across the top of a bun, then crisscross these with 4 diagonal lines. (Don’t cut all the way down through the cookie dough, but rather mark them clearly, about halfway down the cookie dough, as otherwise the cookie bits will drop off into little diamonds, which would be sad.) Wipe your scraper often on a wet towel and dip the edge in flour, as otherwise it will stick and make raggedly edges. Repeat this with the rest of the buns. Use a pastry brush to dab water over the cookie topping on each bun. Let the buns rise for about 20 minutes.

8. Arrange 2 racks in the oven toward the center and then heat the oven to 350°F | 170°C. Just before you place the buns in the oven, brush that last beaten egg over the top of each one, hitting the whole cookie, so that it will brown evenly. Bake the buns for about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through the cooking time, until the tops are a golden brown. Slide the sheets with the buns onto a counter so that they stop cooking on the bottom, and nudge them free once they have cooled. Eat warm or cooled. Store in an airtight container or freeze in resealable bags.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Fresh bamboo shoots for hot weather

Taiwan spent fifty years under Japanese occupa­tion, from 1895 to 1945, and the culinary influence has never left. The fresh seafood available on the island is part of the reason why the Japanese cui­sine there is so wonderful, but I’m also fond of it because it has been inflected with Chinese flavors.

To make this local specialty, fat winter or spring bamboo shoots are cooked until barely tender, chilled, and then drizzled with ribbons of Japanese mayo. Overall, it’s a very simple dish, but make sure you check out the Tips below for help in selecting the main ingredient.

This last week I came across a gorgeous pile of black-sheathed bamboo shoots. They are spring rather than winter bamboo shoots because a) it is no longer winter and b) they are long and thin. I lack all self-control when it comes to ingredients like this, so I bought a large bag of them and happily mused over all of the good things that could be created with them.

And then the weather became really hot down here, and so it was a no-brainer: they had to be transformed into something dead simple, a lovely cold dish that I’ve loved for decades. Share the joy.

Cold bamboo shoots with mayonnaise
Liángbàn zhúsŭn 涼拌竹筍
Serves 4 to 6

1 pound | 500 g winter bamboo shoots, fresh or frozen and defrosted (see Tips)
2 teaspoons sea salt
Curly lettuce leaves for garnish, optional
Kewpie brand mayonnaise, as needed
Peel off the sheaths

1. Start this recipe at least 4 hours—and up to 3 days—before serving. If using fresh bamboo shoots, peel them. To do this, first cut off thin slices from the base with a very sharp knife until the meat is a pure ivory color. Then, slit the sheath up from one side, starting at the bottom and exerting more pressure as you reach the tip, which will aim your blade down through the sheath layers and make their removal relatively easy. Trim off any less-than-perfect bits. If you are using winter bamboo, cut the shoots into chunks about 1 inch | 2 cm all around. For spring bamboo, slice the shoots lengthwise into uniform strips, as having them the same size will help them cook evenly.

2. Rinse the shoots and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover with water and add the salt. Bring the water to a full boil over high heat and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the shoots until the thickest piece can be easily pierced with a paring knife, about 15 min­utes for frozen winter shoots and about 30 minutes for fresh; spring bamboo shoots will sometimes take much longer, as the bases are particularly hard. (Remember, bamboo is used for things like furniture and flooring, so you’re sometimes faced with cooking young wood.) Drain, rinse with cool tap water, and drain again in a colander. Allow the shoots to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least a couple of hours to chill them completely.
A split spring bamboo shoot

3. Just before serving, clean and dry the optional lettuce leaves and arrange them on a serving plate. Mound the chilled bamboo shoots on top of the lettuce and drizzle them with your mayonnaise.


When it comes to bamboo shoots, there are two basic kinds available in the United States at present: chūnsŭn 春筍 (“spring bamboo shoots”) and dōngsŭn 冬筍 (“winter bamboo shoots”). Spring bamboo shoots are long and thin, while winter bamboo shoots are short and chubby. Spring shoots are grassier and more delicate, and so should be cooked gently. Winter shoots are heavier in texture and great for braises.

Select fresh shoots that are firm all over; the sheaths should have no sign of mold or mildew. If the tips are not green, it means that the shoot was harvested while it was still underground and it’s likely that its sugars have not had a chance to turn bitter. Look for shoots that have freshly cut bases; shrinkage around the bases tells you that the shoots are drying out. Store these in the refrigerator in their sheaths and use as quickly as possible. Peel and blanch them if you need to keep them a while longer. Frozen ones keep well, but they should be used before they get freezer burn.
Ready to cook

Spring bamboo shoots will almost always be frozen during their shipment, which of course helps to keep them from rotting on their long ocean voyage, and so they are not really and truly fresh, but this is as close as we can get right now to the genuine article. What this means to you as a shopper is that you should gently (and most likely surreptitiously) squeeze the shoots as you pick them up. Discard any that feel at all mushy.

While you are doing that, inspect the bases and the tips. The tips should still be more or pointed, which means that they weren’t banged around a whole lot during their processing. The bases ought to look and feel hard. You will see a bit of drying out, which is normal, but press on the flat bottoms to see whether they have softened up, as this will indicate a hard freeze that broke down the cells. This generally can be trimmed off, but it is wasteful.
Accept no substitutes

Another way to prepare your bamboo shoots is to cook them in salted, defatted chicken stock. If you like, you can season the stock with rice wine, ginger, and green onions. The bamboo shoots will be much more flavorful this way, and they won’t need any garnish.

Hunt down Japanese Kewpie brand mayonnaise for this and all other Chinese dishes that call for mayo. It has a richer flavor with a tiny piquant edge smoothed with a bit of sugar. It is also packed with things like MSG, but oh well, it tastes really good.

If you would prefer more of a punch in your dish, mix the Kewpie with some Sriracha hot sauce to your favorite degree of hellishness and then toss the bamboo shoots with it. This goes really great with cold beer. Just saying.