Time for Mooncakes

mooncakes

When you write articles on food traditions, there are some where you say ” I’ll write about that this year!” So it is with mooncakes which are often discussed even at our local bakery.

Mooncakes are traditional Chinese pastries that are often associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This festival is quite a significant celebration in Chinese culture, and it usually falls on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, which is around September or October in the Gregorian calendar.

Mooncakes are round or square-shaped pastries with a rich, dense filling. The fillings can vary widely and may include sweet bean paste, lotus seed paste, jam, chinese sausage, salted duck egg yolks, and sometimes nuts or dried fruits. The traditional fillings are highly sought after. The outer crust of the mooncake is usually made from a thin layer of pastry dough that may be tender or flaky, depending on the regional style.

One distinctive feature of many mooncakes is the salted duck egg yolk embedded in the center of the filling. The yolk symbolizes the full moon and is often associated with good luck and prosperity. The saltiness of the yolk contrasts with the sweetness of the other ingredients, creating a unique and flavorful combination. You find other savory fillings too which harks back to a time when contrasts between sweet and savoury were a reflection on life itself.

Mooncakes often have intricate designs on the top, imprinted with symbols such as the characters for “harmony,” “longevity,” or the festival’s name. Traditional mooncakes are imprinted with these patterns using wooden molds. Nowadays, there are also modern variations with diverse flavors and innovative designs.

Sharing and exchanging mooncakes are common practices during the Mid-Autumn Festival, symbolizing unity and togetherness among family and friends. The act of gifting mooncakes is a way of expressing good wishes and strengthening social bonds. In addition to the traditional flavors, there are now many contemporary versions of mooncakes, including ones with chocolate, ice cream, or even savory fillings.

The Chinese are almost besotted with these delicacies and then so are the Vietnamese. I was reading in the news outlets how people queue as if at a film premier waiting to buy them. People, holding blankets that have kept them warm overnight as they waited to purchase gift boxes.

The Moon Festival, and by extension mooncakes, are celebrated not only in China but also in other East Asian countries, including Taiwan (Taipei), Vietnam as we already mentioned, Malaysia, and Singapore, where variations of mooncakes are enjoyed as part of the festivities. They are not however in favour in North Korea where trading officials this year seized boxes of the cakes. These are not traditional foods of Korea and are claimed to subvert the important Korean holiday of Chuseok. This is the Korean version of the autumn holiday celebrated throughout Asia, that also falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, or Sept. 29 this year.

Mind you it hasn’t all been good news for these delicacies. Some bakers had to recall their cakes when Staphylococcus bacteria were discovered lurking in the fillings. This was the case in Singapore where levels of bacteria were above the maximum limits stipulated in that country’s food regulations. Mooncakes have also been known to contain fillings that contain aflatoxins especially when nuts and seeds have been used that do not come from reputable sources.

However, these incidences where food safety regulations regarding ingredients are contravened is rare. Mooncakes are fascinating foods and having tried them on various occasions, I’ve always been fascinated by the intricacies of the design and the flavour.

The basic recipe for traditional Chinese mooncakes with a sweet red bean paste filling is one that we collected from our friends. This recipe makes approximately 6 mooncakes.

Ingredients:

For the Filling:

For the Dough:

Preparation:

1. Prepare the Filling:

  • If you’re using store-bought sweet red bean paste, you can skip this step. Otherwise, you can make your own by cooking adzuki beans and sweetening them. You can find sweet red bean paste at Asian grocery stores.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a pan, add the red bean paste, and stir-fry for a few minutes until it becomes smooth and pliable. Set aside to cool.

2. Prepare the Dough:

  • In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, golden syrup, vegetable oil, and alkaline water. Mix until a dough forms.
  • Knead the dough on a floured surface until it’s smooth and elastic. This may take about 10-15 minutes.
  • Divide the dough into 6 equal portions.

3. Assemble the Mooncakes:

  • Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C).
  • Take one portion of the dough and flatten it with your hands. Place a ball of red bean paste in the center.
  • Fold the edges of the dough over the filling, pinching to seal. Roll it into a ball and flatten it slightly. Repeat for the remaining portions.

4. Shape and Bake:

  • Place each filled mooncake into a mooncake mold to get the desired pattern on top. If you don’t have a mold, you can shape them by hand.
  • Place the shaped mooncakes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  • Brush the tops of the mooncakes with the beaten egg for a golden finish.
  • Bake for about 15-20 minutes or until the mooncakes turn golden brown.

5. Cool and Serve:

  • Allow the mooncakes to cool completely before serving.

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