The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by people around the world, including China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Thailand, as well as many others. The holiday, which is also referred to as the Moon Festival, falls on September 21 this year, and is centered around moon gazing, gathering with family and friends, lighting lanterns, exchanging mooncakes, and, of course, eating mooncakes. The Mid-Autumn Festival symbolizes family reunion, and on this day, the moon is at its fullest.
Even in the U.S., mooncakes are a very popular food this time of year. They can be found at many Asian markets, shops, and bakeries. Even many local Costco stores sell multiple varieties of mooncakes. However, the best mooncakes are often ones that are made fresh in house from small businesses without preservatives.
Mooncakes are traditionally a round, dense, and rich-tasting pastry made from lotus seed paste or red bean, and stuffed with salted duck egg yolk. Although it is a tradition for many to exchange mooncakes and give them to family and friends, many younger foodies do not enjoy the taste of old-school mooncakes. This has prompted many entrepreneurial companies to create “newer,” more unique kinds of mooncakes for a new generation. Here are a few to consider for the Mid-Autumn Festival this year.
Aliya Lavaland is a new business in the San Gabriel Valley that specializes in mooncakes all year round. The shop has been receiving high praise from foodies. Many of the flavors have been selling out daily due to its popularity. Pastry chef Alise Mekaswarn owns the shop with her husband Henry and created her mooncake recipe by endlessly testing a mashup of their family’s favorite desserts: a Chinese salted egg yolk bun and a French chocolate lava cake. Mekaswarn describes her mooncakes as a mashup of a Thai kanom pia (a type of flaky pastry with a smashed bean filling) using French baking techniques.
According to Mekaswarn, kanom pia are sold all year round in Thailand. The traditional Thai desserts are mostly made with only mung beans or taro. Some are even stuffed with cooked salted egg yolk. She tirelessly tested her recipe using flavors she believed would be popular in the U.S. She also added a rose-like flaky crust to her mooncakes, which is not the norm in Thailand.
“I think the younger generations are looking for something new that gives them an explosion of many tastes at once. Many are searching for that elusive fifth taste, which is the umami,” explains Mekaswarn. “I like to think that we have that umami taste in our lava mooncakes. It's a new combination of many ingredients for this kind of pastry dessert. All of our mooncakes are very good with coffee or tea, as well.”
Aliya Lavaland’s signature lava mooncake is made with mung beans and oozes salted egg yolk. The taro lava mooncake is made with coconut milk and handpicked large taro. The Hawaiian “ube” lava mooncake is made with Okinawan purple yam grown in Hawaii with coconut milk. The matcha lava mooncake is made with real matcha and mung beans.
If a salted egg lava center is not your thing, Aliya Lavaland also has plain mini mooncakes that do not contain a lava center. The mooncakes have an extremely flaky crust and are made without preservatives. The large mooncakes are filled to order, so make sure to allow a bit of time. Mid-Autumn Festival or not, the Mekaswarns are churning out fresh mooncakes constantly from the oven and are a new must-stop for foodies.
Aliya Lavaland is located at 141 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 103, Monterey Park, CA, 91754.
Sheng Kee is a popular bakery with many locations in the Bay Area that has been around since the 1950s. Originally from Taiwan, Sheng Kee Bakery is now run by second-generation owner Arthur Kao, who is working hard to bridge the gap between tradition and new. As a second-generation Asian-American, Kao feels that exchanging and enjoying mooncakes has always been a tradition that he inherited from his family. “That tradition captures so many familiar memories, familial history, and fantastic meals that help me reconnect with my Taiwanese-Chinese heritage,” said Kao.
Many of the traditional flavors at Sheng Kee Bakery were designed to remind the older generations of home, such as date, red bean, lotus, and mixed nuts, etc. However, in the last few years, Kao has taken on the challenge to expand on the work of his family, and refresh and update mooncake flavors and looks without losing the cultural essence from where they came from.
“I think Asian flavors have really been taking the forefront of the U.S. palate and have been pushing for wider acceptance,” says Kao. “In response to that, in the last few years we have really expanded our Asian pastry line with non-traditional mooncakes by including flavors like taro, black sesame, green tea, oolong, sweet potato, mulberry, custard lava, and fruit mooncakes.”
In addition to changing up the flavors, Kao and his family have also taken tremendous care in updating the look and shells of the mooncakes themselves. The newer flavors have moved away from the more traditional "guang shi bing pi" (Cantonese cookie shell, which are golden brown and similar to a soft cookie crust) and more towards the more modern laminated layers and flaky pastry skins. Kao has also taken great care to update traditional designs by working with a Taiwanese designer to create a calligraphy-based theme to represent and modernize the products.
Sheng Kee also ships across the U.S. Because the younger, web-savvy generation tends to buy things online, this is the first time Kao is making an online exclusive limited edition mooncake gift box where a lucky few will find Golden Foil Tickets similar to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that win a prize set worth around $250.
For locations, visit https://www.shengkee.com.
Go Cakes is a hip mom-and-pop dessert shop in San Marino, California, that specializes in melding East and West flavors. Helmed by owner and baker Stephanie Fong, Go Cakes constantly has new and rotating seasonal dessert specials that bring in the crowds. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, Fong felt that this year is especially important to celebrate and be grateful for, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I really wanted to make something not only aesthetically pleasing, but something unique and auspicious after all the isolation most people have felt this past year,” says Fong.
Fong’s desserts have always appealed to the newer foodie generation with her emphasis on quality ingredients and immaculate packaging. Her desserts are always Instagram-worthy and her mooncake creations are no exception.
“The salted egg yolk lava centers are very popular these days, so I really wanted to make them into popular flavors in auspicious shapes inspired by Chinese culture,” says Fong.
Fong also wanted to use better ingredients, and less sugar and oil than the traditionally mass produced mooncakes available. This year’s limited edition set comes in four flavors: black sesame, matcha, original, and chocolate. Unlike the other mooncakes, the lava center at Go Cakes is salted yolk. The original flavor is shaped into a chrysanthemum flower. Chocolate is shaped into an ancient jade pendant. Matcha is shaped into the jade rabbit, a character that is associated with the moon and Mid-Autumn mythology. The black sesame flavor is shaped like a fish, which is believed to to bring luck and prosperity. Each mooncake oozes salted egg yolk lava that matches the exterior flavor. All of Go Cakes’ mooncakes are made daily in store, from scratch. The Blooming Flowers and Auspicious Moon set comes packaged in a traditional Chinese silk wrapped wood box.
Go Cakes is located at 2322 Huntington Dr., San Marino, CA, 91108.
Every year Lady M, known for their famous mille crêpes, releases a limited-edition mooncake gift set for the Mid-Autumn Festival. The packaging itself is a statement piece, which is why the sets tend to sell out quickly.
This year’s set is the Celebration of Lights Mooncake Gift Set, which features six custard and chocolate miniature mooncakes. The custard flavor is meant to be a more traditional flavor, whereas the chocolate is meant to be a more modern addition. Just like their mille crêpes, the mooncakes are supposed to be enjoyed and paired with tea. The box features an ombré of purple, blue, and gold light up Ferris wheel that spins. You can also find the immortal mythical rabbit watching over the Ferris wheel, symbolizing a plentiful harvest for the holiday.
Lady M sees itself as making mooncakes catered to a new generation. “From the packaging (which is designed for gifting and sharing), to individual mooncakes, it is a complete experience from start to finish. All of this is created with the central idea that mooncakes are meant to be shared with others. The packaging is intricate and luxurious, made to be enjoyed,” said CEO Ken Romaniszyn.
The Lady M design team starts work on the annual mooncake gift set one year in advance because they are meant to be collectable keepsake items. “At a time when not everyone can be together in person, our customers can send the mooncakes to loved ones and spread joy. It is a truly thoughtful gift. This year's gift set focuses on traditional elements in the packaging (such as the fireworks and moon rabbit) in an innovative format,” said Romaniszyn.
For locations, please visit https://www.ladym.com.
Sunny Bakery in San Gabriel, California, makes old-school Cantonese-style mooncakes freshly in house, but the must-order mooncake is the snow skin durian-stuffed mooncake. Sunny Bakery is known for their fresh durian cakes, so it’s no surprise that the durian mooncakes would also be a seasonal hit. The snow skin durian mooncake has become the most popular mooncake because of fresh durian used inside. The translucent white outer mooncake skin is similar to that of Japanese mochi treats, and the inside is stuffed with fresh durian extract paste.
Sunny Bakery is located at 743 East Valley Boulevard, San Gabriel, CA, 91776.
My Hiep in Westminster, California, is another one of the few businesses that specializes in mooncakes year-round. Instead of buying premade boxes of mooncakes from the supermarket filled with preservatives that were shipped from Asia months ago, My Hiep makes them fresh in-house and in several varieties.
The Vietnamese bakery has a wide range of fillings, such as taro, green bean, lotus seed, Chinese sausage, chicken, salted egg yolk, red bean, nuts, pork, vegetarian, and even durian. One of the perks of ordering from My Hiep is that customers can mix and match their mooncake selections, whereas traditionally a box of mooncakes has only one flavor.
For people who want a healthier option, My Hiep has mooncakes made with vegetable oil instead of the traditional lard. The fillings are not too sweet, and the skin is thin and moist. They also offer online ordering to appeal to the ever-busy foodie and free shipping on orders more than four boxes.
My Hiep is located at 10483 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA, 92683.
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