Moon Cakes, Mid-Autumn, and Making Time

One of our Family Lanterns

Like many families staying in because of the pandemic, we’ve watched a ridiculous number of movies in 2020. At the top of the most-watched and loved list is the Kung Fu Panda series and the Netflix original movie Over the Moon. In both the mid-autumn festival is celebrated and moon cakes and bean buns are enjoyed. About a third of Eleanor’s preschool class was from China and they did many Chinese activities, so she was delighted to revisit the festival and teach us a few of the mandarin words she remembers from her friends there. We decided we wanted to learn more about the festival and the foods – and of course I’m trying to turn myself into a cook and a baker – so we decided to make moon cakes, throw a mid-autumn festival (a month late), and do some research.

As plagiarized from Wikipedia, the Mid–Autumn Festival, also known as Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, is a traditional festival celebrated by many East and Southeast Asian people. The festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar with a full moon at night, corresponding to mid-September to early October of the Gregorian calendar – in 2020 this was in early October. We’re celebrating a month late, but is it always a good time to stop and reflect on our good fortune, our family, and honor the changing of the seasons.

My Final Mooncakes

I became mildly obsessed with making moon cakes and watched all the YouTube videos.  There are so many cool press options and variations by culture and country. I made three filling variations as I’m an annoying over-achiever. Because I was bothering with three different fillings, I decided to do try different recipes for the dough as well, though all are along the same lines. Here are the recipes:

Right away, we needed to do some shopping. Ever wanting to support local, the kids and I masked-up, grabbed the hand sanitizer, and headed to three different Asian markets in Lincoln. I had the best luck at Oriental Market Inc. 林肯东方店 and at Hong Kong Market. I purchased golden syrup (Lyle’s), lye water, dried lotus seeds, azuki red beans, and of course a moon cake press kit, which was the most fun because of all the designs.

I did have to get the golden syrup and the press online, as stores reported they were seasonal. Everyone was also careful to tell me that I could just buy premade moon cakes and seemed to think I was a little insane, but I was undeterred. We made the cake flour at home (sift all purpose flour and corn starch) and I substituted the canola and sunflower oil for grapeseed oil (I like the fruiter taste and we had it on hand). Important tip, have a grams to cup/teaspoons converter ready!

Here are a few YouTube videos I found particularly helpful too:
How to make mooncake with salted egg yolk – Recipe By ZaTaYaYummy
How to Make Traditional Mooncake Step by Step
Cantonese Mooncake Recipe (双黄白莲蓉月饼)
Traditional Chinese Mooncakes (With 2 Fillings)

Red Bean Paste Filling:
Like anything else with beans, they needed to soak overnight. I immediately screwed up by just dumping the full package of dried beans into the soak, when the recipe said to measure one cup first. Whoops. Thankfully it was a relatively small bag, that was maybe about two cups. After the soak we did a double boil and let them simmer for almost two hours. I ended up with a lot of more paste and had to mess around with my sugar ratio once making the paste.

The dough felt like 90% syrup, but came together really nicely. This recipe is for mini cakes and the dough seemed like.. like not enough dough… but that may have been because of all my red bean paste? Anyhow, I froze all my left cover paste (almost 3 cups worth) to make bean buns later on.

Mid-bake you pull the cakes out to for an egg yolk wash. I definitely used way too much egg wash, which blew out the designs. Thankful I baked off one batch as a test first so I could adjust the lotus seed variations.

After baking, the cakes need to sit for two days (yes, days) in air tight containers, letting the oils soften up the dough. This really made a huge difference! Get patient and don’t skip the wait. Max, Morgan, and I really liked these red bean mooncakes but Eleanor couldn’t believe we could eat them. While sweet, it is a much more savory and crispy treat than our palettes are used to. To be honest, they really remind me of fig newtons.

Lotus Seed Fillings:
Did you know the little sprouts grow inside of the lotus seeds and are super bitter? Now you do! The kid’s were recruited to crack open every seed and pull out sprouts, after the seeds soaked overnight. I also made the lotus paste the day before making the next round of moon cakes. This is a labor-intensive process, so I was leisurely about it.

I found the lotus seeds a little harder to get to congeal into a workable paste and my wand processor didn’t do a great job smoothing it out. I wasn’t a huge fan – though I didn’t hate it – but Morgan loved it. I was pretty skeptical about the salted egg yolks too. After opening them up I baked them for 8 minutes at 200(ish) to soften them up just slightly. In the end they made the cakes much more sturdy and the favor was much less salty and egg-y than I expected. I suggest trying them, at the very least.

Tip, again, if that egg wash goes on too thick you lose your design detail, so be sure your wash is really thin and covers the sides.

Max liked the red bean paste cakes, but Eleanor is a bit more picky. I wanted everyone to get in on our festival so with the last five balls of dough I dipped into the halloween candy. I took a miniature Snickers, warmed it up in my hand, and rolled it into a ball. I repeated this with a Reeses. These cakes leaked just a tiny bit and turned out delicious!

Festival Time!
We threw our own Mid-Autumn festival a few days after I finished the last batch. In preparation we made 16 or so paper lanterns to hang up and learned about the moon. That evening Morgan made a Chinese feast with Eleanor’s favorite, chicken fried rice, and Max’s favorite, pot stickers. We read a few non-fiction books on the festival and it’s history and delivered a mooncake care package to my parents to celebrate family and share the love.

In all, we had a great two weeks learning about other cultures, trying new foods, and baking!