Monday, September 24, 2012

Date and red bean fillings for celestial Cantonese moon cakes

This coming Sunday 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.

I've 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. 

Small & large moon cake 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 had tried one fantastic moon cake during my first year in Taiwan. The mom in my host family handed me a freshly baked coconut moon cake my very first Moon Festival, and it is one that I've never been able to forget. 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, this year I gave myself a self-imposed challenge: make moon cakes as good as Auntie Lee's so that Zester Daily could publish the results in time for the Moon Festival. This was not easy, and the search for this recipe has possessed me for the past couple of weeks. 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. I slogged on doggedly, though, ending up with gloppy results that even my sweets-loving husband had trouble gagging down.

Mill the skins off of the dates

What I wanted was crumbly, light, ever-so-slightly chewy cookie dough wrapped around luscious fillings. This was trial and lots of error, and I have a whole lot to tell you about the experience, but let me get to the most important fact first: t
hese are the best moon cakes ever!

More on this subject to come over the next two posts -- plus both a back story on the Moon Festival, as well as the main recipe for moon cakes (including a crunchy, chewy fruit and nut filling called wuren) are now on Zester. For now, let me whet your appetite with two traditional fillings that are perfect not only for moon cakes, but also for any other number of Chinese sweets, as well as for Western style thumbprint cookies and cakes. In the next blog post will be recipes for both coconut and lotus filling, and the one after that will show you how to make mini moon cakes.

All of the filling recipes I've developed here make around 2½ cups, which is enough for 10 large (3-inch) or 30 small (1-inch) moon cakes.

Date paste filling with toasted walnuts 
Hetao zaoni  核桃棗泥  
Makes about 2½ cups

8 ounces dried pitted red Chinese dates (jujubes)
Filtered water
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup roasted sesame oil
½ cup caramel (see main recipe on Zester Daily)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup chopped walnuts

1. To make the filling, soak the dates for 8 to 24 hours by covering them in cool water. Steam the dates and their soaking water for 45 minutes until the dates are very soft. Drain off the liquid (save it for something else; see Tips). Then, run the dates through the fine holes of a food mill (or a coarse sieve), discarding the skins. 

2. Pour the date puree into a wok and add the rest of the filling ingredients, except for the walnuts. Bring the puree to a boil and then lower the heat to medium so that you have a steady simmer. Use a silicone spatula to continuously stir the bottom of the puree; this keeps the puree from sticking and allows the steam to be released, as otherwise the puree will boil and spit. 

Juuust right
3. When the puree is reduced to a thick mashed potato-like paste, continue to stir and cook it until it changes from a mahogany color to a dark reddish brown. There should be absolutely no moisture left in the paste. When it's ready, you should be able to draw your spatula down through the paste to the bottom of the pan, and the paste will stay put. (See the photo on the right.) At this point, pour it into a bowl to cool completely. (The filling can be made weeks ahead of time and covered stored in the refrigerator. If you are keeping it for longer than that, freeze it to avoid spoilage.)

4. Before you use it to fill moon cakes, check the moisture of the date paste once again. It should feel slightly oily without a trace of wetness, and it should look super glossy. If it fails any of these tests, fry it again without adding any other ingredients. (Moisture will ruin your moon cakes by seeping into the cooked wrappers and making them soggy, hence the attention to this important detail.) 

5. To toast the walnuts, place them in a cold wok and turn the heat under the wok to medium-high. Continually stir the walnuts as they toast to keep them from burning; no additional oil will be necessary. When the nuts are evenly toasted, pour them into a bowl to cool. Mix the toasted walnuts evenly into the date paste. Divide the date paste into 10 pieces and roll them into balls; moistening your hands will make this go a whole lot easier. Chill the date paste before filling the moon cakes, as it is rather soft.

Sneaking a wedge...
Red bean paste with chestnuts 
Dousha lizi  豆沙栗子 
Makes about 2½ cups

6 ounces dried red or adzuki beans
Filtered water as needed
4 ounces peeled frozen or fresh chestnuts
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon sea salt
⅓ cup dark brown sugar, packed

1. Soak the beans for 8 hours or overnight in a medium saucepan. Drain them, cover them with fresh filtered water, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and then cook them until they are very soft, adding small amounts of water as needed to keep the beans from burning; cook off any excess water. Remove the beans to a heatproof work bowl and let them come to room temperature.

2. While the beans are cooking, place the chestnuts in a heatproof bowl and steam them for about 25 minutes, or until very tender. Remove them from the steamer, drain them, and let them come to room temperature. When cool enough to handle, use a paring knife to remove any bits of red skin still attached to them. Do not chop the chestnuts, but leave them more or less whole.

Chestnuts in the bean paste
3. Place the cooked, mashed beans in a wok and add the butter, salt, and sugar. Heat these together over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a silicone spatula, until all of the moisture has evaporated and the bean paste is dark and thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning. You can add more brown sugar or even caramel (see the recipe in the Zester link) to heighten the sweetness, but be sure and cook the paste down again until it is thick and glossy. You should have absolutely no moisture in the bean paste, as this will soak into the cooked moon cake pastry and make it soggy.

4. Cool the bean paste in a work bowl and then chill. Roll the bean paste into 10 balls of even size. Distribute the chestnuts among the bean paste balls and scoot them into the paste, covering them completely. 


Pitted red Chinese dates
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 pitted were done so by machines, so beware of the occasional pit or chips. The food mill will remove any lingering pieces, which is another good reason to use it instead of a food processor.

Don't use dates that have been processed or sweetened, just plain old red dates. Look at the list of ingredients to be sure; all it should read is "dates."

Chill the date paste before rolling it into balls, as this is the softest of all the fillings. Even then, bits of date paste will peek through the filling, making a marble effect, which I think is actually quite pretty. The paste is thick enough, though, from all that sugar that it will not melt even though it's exposed to the heat of your oven.

Reserve the water in which the dates steamed, as this is incredibly delicious. Drink it as is, cold or hot, or add it to other things like oatmeal or tea.

Red and adzuki beans are best at busy Chinese markets and health food stores. The fresher they are, the faster they cook.

You can mill the skins off of the cooked red beans (as with the red dates), if you wish. But I much prefer the texture of the paste with the skins on. As with all things of this nature, follow your own preferences.

Both the date and bean pastes can be easily doubled. In fact, I always make at least twice as much of these recipes since it takes just as much time to make that much as the smaller amount. The extra can be frozen for later use and makes desserts for parties a snap.


  1. I have used dates from Middle Eastern stores or the local regular grocery store with good results, and you don't need any additional sugar with those. Not quite the same but good enough if there is no Chinese store in your local area. I've also used red kidney beans when I could not find adzuki beans.