Monday, September 14, 2015

White magic: coconut and lotus seed paste moon cakes

As I noted in in last Monday’s blog post, discovering the recipe for perfect Cantonese moon cakes was a tough project. There were all these little secrets and keys that no one talked about for some reason, but once they were figured out, this turned out to be a master recipe that anyone can cook from with ease.

Granted, it does take a bit of time to assemble the fillings, but once you have them done - and they can be made a couple of days ahead of time - you can then start practicing actually forming the moon cakes, and you'll soon be able to knock these babies out in no time flat.

The biggest secret to making traditional Cantonese-style moon cakes is the caramel syrup that finds its way into not only the fillings, but also the glaze and even the pastry itself. When I bit into my very first successful moon cake, the caramel provided that gentle chewiness that was always missing before that.
Perfection achieved!

Traditionally, Cantonese moon cakes were made with a sugar syrup called tángqīng 糖青, or "sugar green," that was supposed to be allowed to ferment for at least two or three months. An old cookbook on Chinese sweets says firmly that it "cannot be used immediately after it is boiled." Well, when I read that, I was truly dismayed because I had less than a month to crack the secret, and this was definitely not helping.

The key came in the form of a recipe I uncovered by the great Sichuan chef Chen Kenmin, as I mentioned earlier. Chef Chen didn't talk about the caramel per se, but there were enough clues to figure it out. Then, I fiddled around with his ratio of fat and sugar to flour in order to get that super thin wrapper I so desired.

Look at that super thin crust
In the end, the high amount of caramel and oil in the dough ended up making it truly easy to wrap the pastry evenly around the filling. Prior to this trial-and-error discovery, I'd always ended up with cracked dough or thick bases on the pastries.

Before this, too, I could never get the dough to achieve that delectable degree of thinness that allows the pastry to be so crisp and yet chewy, and also offers that irresistible Chinese contrast of the soft and luscious filling. I mean, when I cut open that first moon cake that you see above (it has the fruit and nut filling recipe posted last week), I couldn't have been more elated.

If you've tried making Cantonese moon cakes before and failed, you'll see a couple other changes here that end up making all the difference in the world. For instance, there is no leavening in the dough. Every recipe I'd consulted called for baking powder or baking soda or Chinese alkaline water (aka “lye water,” which is just a bad translation of jiǎnshuǐ 鹼水) or something to make the dough rise. That was a big mistake. This dough doesn't need it at all, and in fact leavening just serves to fuzz up the pattern on the cakes because the dough, of course, rises. Leave it out and the pastry becomes crumbly and yet tender, and whatever pattern you use for your molds will remain clear.

Another small difference is the butter that's used in all of my moon cake recipes. Butter is definitely not traditional - lard is the fat of choice in old Chinese moon cakes - but I am certain that if Chinese pastry chefs had had the option of using butter instead of lard, they wouldn't have hesitated for a second!

Students of Chinese will note that while both date paste and red bean paste are referred to as  , or mud, today's two fillings are correctly called róng , which is a type of mallow or hibiscus; this is a Cantonese word often used in the names of fluffy foods, as can be seen in that old American-Chinese classic, egg foo yung (furong dan) or minced chicken (jirong). 
Korean flour & Meiguilu

In addition to the dark caramel glaze I gave you last week, I have included one extra glaze recipe here in order to give you the option of a blonder moon cake. This is especially helpful if you have a limited number of molds alongside an enthusiastic number of fillings, because this way your lighter-colored fillings (like coconut and lotus paste) can be identified more easily.

Both recipes are enough for 10 three-inch moon cakes, or 30 one-inch mini cakes.

Coconut filling 
Yéróng 椰蓉
Makes about 3 cups packed

14 ounces sweetened flaked coconut
¼ cup butter, softened
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup powdered sugar
¼ cup coconut rum

1. Shake the coconut into a large work bowl and break apart any lumps.

2. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir.

3. Let the filling sit for at least 30 minutes so that all the rum can be absorbed. Refrigerate until chilled, and then roll the filling into balls as directed.

Lotus, pine nut & salted yolk filling

Liánróng sōngzi dànhuáng  蓮蓉松子蛋黃
Glorious seeds & nuts
Makes about 2½ cups

6 ounces dried lotus seeds
¼ cup butter, softened
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup powdered sugar
¾ cup caramel syrup
3 tablespoons Meiguilu (Chinese rose-flavored white liquor; see Tips)
1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
4 ounces toasted pine nuts
10 brined egg yolks, homemade or store-bought
2 tablespoon Meiguilu

1. Soak the lotus seeds for 8 hours or overnight. Drain. Place the seeds in a heatproof bowl and steam them for about 30 minutes, or until very tender. Remove from the steamer and let them come to room temperature.

Looks rude, tastes great
2. Remove the bitter green sprout that will appear in many of the seeds. To do this, gently squeeze the seed as shown in the photo to the right; if you can see a green "tongue" sticking out at you, open the seed and simply pluck out and discard the sprout.

3. Place the lotus seeds in a food processor (don’t use a food mill here – it will just gunk up) fitted with a metal blade and pulse them until the seeds are reduced to a fine gravel. Add the butter, salt, sugar, caramel, and 3 tablespoons Meiguilu, and then whiz them together to make a fine paste. Dump the paste into a medium work bowl; taste and adjust the seasoning. Stir in the pine nuts until they are easily distributed. Chill the filling.

4. While the filling is in the refrigerator, place the egg yolks on a ovenproof plate and sprinkle them with the 2 tablespoons Meiguilu, as this will remove some of the gaminess. Bake them at 375°F for about 7 minutes to soften and cook them; this will also release some of the oils in the yolks and turn them creamier. Remove the yolks from the plate and let them come to room temperature. (If you wish, you can use the yolks as is, especially if you are using chicken eggs rather than duck eggs; they'll still be good.)

5. Divide the lotus filling into 10 pieces, and roll each piece into a ball. (Wetting your hands occasionally makes this a lot easier.) Push one yolk into each ball (see the next photo) and then cover the yolk with the lotus filling.
Wrapping the yolk

6. When you wrap any moon cakes that have salted egg yolks in them, pinch off a half-inch marble of the dough and set it aside while you use the rest of the dough to wrap the filling as usual. Then, when you press the ball into your mold, you will usually see the yolk poking through the bottom, since it is harder than both the filling and the dough. So, use that little piece of leftover dough as a patch on the bottom (see the photo below), and then smooth it down.

Light glaze 
Dànsè dànshuǐ 淡色蛋水  
Enough for 20 large or 30 small moon cakes

1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons milk
That dough patch
1 tablespoon caramel syrup

1. Mix these ingredients together in a small bowl. Brush the glaze lightly over the tops and sides of the unbaked moon cakes.

2. Store any leftovers covered in the refrigerator for not more than a day, as the yolk will start to dry out. (For a picture of what this glaze looks like, see the second photo of the coconut moon cake up near the top of the page.)


You can use any type of shredded coconut you like; just adjust the sweetening to your taste.

In both of these recipes, and in the glazes too, liquors are used as the liquid. This serves to season the pastries and also to provide moisture that is easily evaporated as the moon cakes bake. If you don't use alcohol, just add a little more caramel syrup to thin out the yolk, while for the fillings, use enough caramel instead of the liquor to bind the ingredients. Don't add another liquid, as the fillings will then be too moist.

Coconut rum is used here to heighten the rum flavor; Malibu is my favorite brand. However, you can use any other liquor here to fit your taste. 

Dried lotus seeds can be found in just about any Chinese market or herbal store. Look, as always, for places with fast turnover. Check the bag for bugs and debris. Fresh lotus seeds should appear relatively chubby with little wrinkling.

Be sure and remove the green centers from the lotus seeds before using them in any dish. This is easy once the seeds have been soaked, as they soften once they plump up and can be squeezed open.

I like adding a bit of Cortas brand rose water to the lotus paste to heighten the suggestion of roses in the Meiguilu white liquor. You can't really taste the roses, but it provides a subtle undercurrent. This is, of course, totally optional.

Shelled pine nuts can be used either raw or toasted in this recipe. I prefer toasted here for the heightened nut flavor and color contrast. Either buy the pine nuts toasted or toast them yourself in the oven or a dry wok. The main thing to look for is freshness, so check the expiration date. Store unused pine nuts in the freezer if you don't use them often, as this will keep the oils from going rancid.

This time of the year, salted yolks can be found prepackaged (without the whites) in many Chinese markets, usually in the same case as the other eggs. Make sure they are from the U.S., rather than China. Refrigerate any leftover yolks in a sealed bag and use them within a week or two. Discard any that look or smell wrong.

As the moister moon cakes sit around, the sugars in their fillings will start to gently soften the pastry dough. And that is not a bad thing. In the first day or two, these moon cakes will be nicely crumbly and buttery. But then they slowly turn ever-so-pillowy, the pastry wrapper gently conforming to the rich filling. It's all rather comforting, in some strange way.

If you would prefer the pastry crisper, just reheat the moon cakes in a 325
°F oven; do keep an eye on them so that the moon cakes don't burn.

Store the moon cakes in plastic zippered bags. Try not to stack them up, as gravity will before long work its own magic and start to squish the cakes down. That's why commercial moon cakes always have their own individual coffins plastic indentations to keep them in shape.

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


  1. Am revisiting this post after seeing a mooncake pic at my favorite bakery. I cannot eat the salted egg and I need to cut back the sugar--will this ruin the recipe? Considered using an artificial sweetener but after running around looking for all the other authentic ingredients, it seems not to be a good idea. After all there are no artificial sweeteners used routinely in China, are there?
    Also, at a long closed bakery I found a plain lotus paste mooncake with flatish seeds. Originally, I thought they were lotus seeds but what other seed would look "flat"? I try, every moon festival, to find the best mooncake, but they fall short & the best ones are only in my memories. Thanks.

    1. You most definitely can 86 the eggs and use a sugar substitute. In my experience, the level of sweetness will not affect the texture. The only caveat would be against using a liquid sugar, like agave or other syrup, which would leak out and make the crust soggy. Some stevia products are good options, as they are half sugar, so that the flavor is pretty good. The flat seeds in that other mooncake were probably pumpkin or melon seeds. Try this recipe for Fruit and Nut Mooncakes: - it's really good!