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Recipes of China: Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes

By Clarissa Wei

Sept. 15, 2016
Mooncake is the must-eat treat of mid-autumn Moon Festival in China
Mooncakes, small pastries stuffed with lotus, dates or red bean, are the Chinese equivalent of a fruitcake in the West.

Clarissa Wei makes mooncakes, the must-eat treat of mid-autumn Moon Festival.

Colorful lanterns light up the streets across China during the mid-autumn Moon Festival, which takes place every year on the night of the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. This year it falls on September 15, and for most Chinese people around the globe, that means a mooncake binge. Mooncakes are small pastries stuffed with lotus, dates or red bean and sometimes complemented with salted duck egg yolk. They’re the Chinese equivalent of a fruitcake – you never actually eat them yourself; you buy them to gift to people. But they’re fun to make and nearly all Chinese bakeries around the world will have them in stock weeks before the holiday.

Historically, the mid-autumn festivities have been a time to worship the moon and to celebrate the fall harvest. It’s a practice that dates back to at least the Tang dynasty, although mooncakes didn’t surface until the Yuan dynasty.

Mid-autumn moon festival in Hong Kong
Mid-autumn moon festival in Hong Kong. (Photo credit): Gettyimages.com/Jon Binalay creations

One legend says that the pastries were actually used by the Han Chinese to overthrow the Mongol government. The Han rebel leader had distributed the mooncakes to thousands of Chinese citizens. Inside, they contained a note instructing them to kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eighth month (in the Chinese calendar, which corresponds to September in the Gregorian calendar). Grotesque, sure, but since then, these confections have been an emblem of thanksgiving.

Indeed, mooncakes are quite amazing vessels.

Mooncake cut in half
Mooncakes, just like fruitcakes, can be of different flavors and varieties.
"Mooncakes are small pastries stuffed with lotus, dates or red bean and sometimes complemented with salted duck egg yolk."

Just as there are many different types of fruitcakes, there are many different sorts of mooncakes. They can be stuffed with lotus seeds, sweet beans, nuts, egg yolks or jujube pastes. There are also many regional varieties of the cake. The Cantonese version is often square and has symbols imprinted on it. I learned how to make the Jiangsu-style variety, which has a flaky crust and is round, to reflect the shape of the moon. Round mooncakes symbolize family unity; it’s an extremely auspicious present to receive and give.

I got this recipe in January 2016 while in Hangzhou, the capital of the Zhejiang province of China. It was a cold winter and, because it snowed for a whole week, I didn’t feel like doing much and instead opted to hang out at a local coffee shop. While there, I stumbled across a baking school that specialized in Western pastries and cakes. The mooncake was the only confection that was Chinese in origin and I immediately jumped on it.

I’ve been holding on to this recipe ever since.

"Round mooncakes symbolize family unity; it’s an extremely auspicious present to receive and give."
 Jiangsu-style mooncakes have a flaky crust and are round, to reflect the shape of the moon
Jiangsu-style mooncakes have a flaky crust and are round, to reflect the shape of the moon.

It’s an easy dessert to put together and the salted duck egg is completely optional. Just days after taking the course, I made another batch of mooncakes at my friend’s apartment in Hangzhou to gift to our friends. It was a hit; people, especially Chinese people, are thoroughly impressed by homemade mooncakes. It’s cheaper and easier to buy them, so it’s rare to receive homemade ones.

Wrap them up however you like. In Hangzhou, we got mooncake boxes and individually packaged them. In the United States, a DIY approach is probably the best.

Mooncake Recipe

Preparation time: 1.5 hours

Servings: 9

Shelf life: 5-7 days

Ingredients:
  • 9 salted duck eggs
  • 3/4 cup (180 g) red bean paste
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup black sesame seeds

Two- part skin:

Part A – Soft Dough

  • 2/3 cup (75 g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. (30 g) butter
  • 1/8 cup (20 g) water
  • 3 tsp. (12 g) sugar

Part B – Pastry Dough

  • 1/4 cup (50 g) flour
  • 1 3/4 tbsp. (25 g) butter

Directions:

  1. Bake the salted duck eggs slightly at 356°F for 10 minutes.
  2. Combine the ingredients in Part A and divide the mixture into 9 pieces. Put plastic wrap over the mixture.
  3. Combine the ingredients in Part B. Divide into 9 balls.
  4. Wrap B in A into a ball.
  5. Clarrissa wrapping mooncake dough into a ball
  6. Flatten each ball and then roll it into a cigar-like cylinder shape.
  7. Flatten the cylinder lengthwise and then roll it up again.
  8. Clarissa flattening the cylinder of dough
  9. Stand the cylinder up, then flatten it. This will be the skin of the mooncake. See diagram.
  10. Take a salted duck egg and wrap it in red bean paste. This is the filling.
  11. Clarrisa wrapping the dough skin around the mooncake filling
  12. Slowly wrap the skin around the filling.
  13. Brush the top of each mooncake with egg yolk.
  14. Sprinkle with a bit of the black sesame seeds.
  15. Bake mooncakes at 392°F for 20 minutes.
  16. Enjoy!

Hungry for more? Follow Clarissa’s journey through China as she uncovers authentic dishes and cultural insight.

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