Every year, on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, usually between September and October, China celebrates its beloved “Mid-Autumn Festival”. During this traditional event, the second most important one right after Chinese New Year, the country praises Chang’e, the mythical moon goddess of immortality. Though, the secret star of the festivities is a different one: Mooncakes. While gathering with family and friends to watch and appreciate the earth’s glowing satellite during so-called “Night of the Moon”, the delicious pies have become absolutely indispensable. In fact, the sweet delicacy is so popular that the ancient celebration is nowadays commonly known as “Mooncake Festival”.
Although Mooncakes can be found across all of China, especially during Mid-Autumn Festival, they are most prevalent in the country’s southern regions of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau. But of course the popularity of such an extraordinary treat doesn’t stop there. With China’s increasing global influence – not just politically and economically but also culturally – Mooncakes have spread to other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, among others. Not least due to large Chinese populations that also celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival there as well. And in more recent years, the traditional pastries have slowly started making appearances even in Western countries.
A Beautiful Outside Comes With A Luscious Inside
Of course, the first thing that leaps to the eye is the extraordinary imprint on top of the bakery product. The decoration on the small cakes that are around 10 centimeters in diameter typically consists of the Chinese characters for “longevity” or “harmony” surrounded by other decorative elements like rabbits, flowers or Lady Chang’e. Moreover, the bakeries often use the surface to advertise their name and specify the type of filling.
But clearly, there is more to Mooncakes than just their beautiful exterior. The thin dough crust encases a rich and dense filling that comes in different variations. Sometimes, a salted duck egg yolk forms the center as the symbol of the full moon. In order to get their share of all the different components, people serve and eat the cakes in small wedges. Even though they are almost too precious to cut them apart. Don’t you think? But you will soon realize that it was totally worth it. Pair it with a hot cup of Chinese tea and moon watching has never been better.
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Several Crusts. Different Fillings. All Delicious!
Among the different traditional fillings for the sweet delicacies, two are the clear favorites. The luxurious lotus seed paste – often claimed to be the original – as well as sweet bean paste, primarily that of red azuki beans. Although these are the most common, other typical fillings with jujube date paste or “five kernels” with nuts and seeds well deserve to be mentioned here, too.
So, you will find these and many more fillings all over the place, but when it comes to the crust, each region has its very own standard that it sticks to. There are basically three distinct types in Chinese cuisine. Here, the difference mainly lies in the textures of the baked dough. The crust that is most common in Cantonese Mooncakes is rather chewy and comes with a slightly reddish tone and a glossiness. Two other popular types resemble common Western doughs. The puff-pastry-like version is very flaky due to multiple wafer-thin enclosed layers of grease. It mostly finds use in Suzhou- and Taiwan-style mooncakes. In contrast, the dough similar to shortcrust pastry stands out due to its tenderness and smooth consistency.
Although the standard method of preparing Mooncakes is to bake the filled rounds of dough, you may also find them steamed or even fried in rare occasions. And while most recipes call for using lard, vegetable oil can serve to produce a vegetarian version as well.
Influences Of Modern Cuisine On The Traditional Chinese Pastry
There are many traditional dishes or foods all around the world that people prepared in a specific way for centuries. And like with most of them comes a point in time when the classic is not enough anymore. Chefs will start experimenting with new ingredients to satisfy the demanding crowds. Of course, this is no different for Mooncakes.
As competition has increased over decades, producers have felt the need to become more creative. And so, the most extraordinary variations in the crust and filling have sprung up over time. From coffee and chocolate to fruits such as pineapple and durian or even vegetables like sweet potatoes. But these are just a few examples on a seemingly endless list. And there is hardly any limitation to the level of craziness.
Just like in many Western countries, recent years have seen a rise of a more health-conscious lifestyle in China. Especially with younger generations living in the country’s cosmopolitan centers. Thus, it is hardly surprising that also Mooncake producers have jumped onto the band wagon. Not least due to the arising criticism that the traditional pastries in praise of the moon are way too sugary. Thus, healthier variations – some fat-free, low in sugar or high in fibre – with fillings of yogurt, jelly, or low-carb ice-cream have come to stay.
Secret Mooncake Code: The Chinese Enigma During Ming Revolution
Not that it is easy to throw over a regime today. But imagine how difficult it must have been in a huge country like China to initiate and coordinate the revolt against their Mongolian rulers a hundred years ago. Spreading secret messages during the Ming revolution without proper means of easy yet secure communication was nearly impossible. If it hadn’t been for the genius use of Mooncakes.
Rumor has it that the popular round pastries played a central role as “vehicles” for encoded messages. The strategists allegedly spread a rumor of a deadly plague that could only be contained through an increased consumption of special Mooncakes. With people being less educated and superstitious at that time, demand and thus distribution of the pastries exploded instantly. Little did most of them know that the they carried secret messages.
The cakes which usually came in packages of four simply needed to be cut into quarters. The resulting 16 wedges would be pieced together differently so that the imprint on top would reveal the secret message. Afterwards, the conspirators simply ate the Mooncakes to destroy the messages. It was probably the most delicious decryption of all times with which the Han Chinese coordinated their uprising on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.
How To Make Traditional Mooncakes At Home
Whether for family members or business partners, during Mid-Autumn Festival or even any other day, Mooncakes are a beautiful and delicious treat to serve or give as a present. And of course that doesn’t only count for when you are in China. With our delicious recipe below you can make you own authentic Mooncakes for yourself and your loved ones:
Original Mooncakes With Lotus Seed Paste
For the dough:
- 250 g golden syrup (or honey)
- 80 g peanut oil
- 2 tsp lye water
- 360 g all-purpose flour
For the filling:
- 1kg lotus seed paste
- 50 g melon seeds
- 9 salted egg yolks (preferrably duck)
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tbsp water
- Mooncake moulds for the shape and imprint
- Pour golden syrup (made with sugar, water and lemon juice) or honey in a large bowl and add peanut oil and lye water. Use a whisk to mix everything well
- Now, add 240 grams of the flour and blend everything with a spoon. Cover the bowl with cling film and let it rest for at least 4 hours. A longer rest makes for an easier use later, so you may even make the dough one day ahead
- Separate the egg yolks, place them in an oven-proof form and bake them for only 5 minutes at 180°C
- Now, roast the melon seeds for 5 minutes in the oven as well. Mix them evenly with the lotus seed paste
- Form a log out of the lotus paste so that you can divide it into nine equal pieces. Roll each piece into a small ball and set aside
- Now, finalize the previously started dough by mixing in the remaining flour. Knead everything gently until a firm and even dough evolves
- Divide the dough into 9 equal portions and form balls just like with the lotus seed paste.
- To form a Mooncake, take a lotus paste ball, use your finger to make a hollow in its center and place the semi-baked egg yolk in it. Encase the yolk with the paste and form a ball again
- Now, take a dough ball and flatten it in the palm of your hand. Make sure it is nice and thin. Place the lotus paste ball with the egg yolk on the dough and wrap it around to fully cover it. Seal it well and form a perfect ball again by gently squeezing it
- Repeat these steps for the remaining dough and lotus paste balls
- To press and imprint the Mooncakes, dust the mould with a bit of flower. Place a ball into the mould and put it upright onto the table. Press down the plunger until you can sense resistance. Now, lift the mould and push out the mooncake with the plunger. Repeat this step with the remaining balls
- Place the ready-to-bake Mooncakes on a baking sheet. Let them bake in the preheated oven at 200°C for about 10 minutes
- After taking the pastries out of the oven, let them rest and cool down on a rack for at least 5 minutes
- Beat the remaining egg yolk and lightly brush it on top of the cakes
- Bake the Mooncakes for another 10 minutes until they turn golden brown
- Take them out of the oven and let the pies cool down completely. Then place them in an air-tight container and store them for 1-2 days so that they can turn soft and shiny
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Mooncakes by daniel64 on Pixabay
it’s a cake by my friend by Huong Ho on Unsplash