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