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!

#ElsbethCooks up a serendipitous New Year’s resolution

There are a few things you need to know about me from 2019 (aside from my blissful naivety of what the following year would hold). First, I love to eat good, adventurous, and new foods, but I hated cooking. Hated it. Full on felt that the process was torture. Fortunately I’m married to a chef and I was happy to eat sandwiches when he was not available. Second, I love taking on new and difficult challenges – always have – but I was sick of fitness and body centered goals. I started toying with the idea of a cooking challenge. Truth be told, training to run a seventh half marathon, after almost a year of running hiatus, seemed more doable than learning to cook. Actually enjoying cooking seemed near impossible. So, obviously, I set a New Year’s resolution to learn to cook.

Given what 2020 held, this was a very serendipitous decision. What better thing to do in a pandemic? Cook! And cook? Cook, I have.

Things started slowly and a bit painfully. I initially focused primarily on vegan and vegetarian dishes. My husband is a meat lover and as our primary family cook, almost every meal includes it, so I wanted to lighten our environmental impact. I continue to be interested in more plant based cooking, but have to admit I found it difficult to make things I really wanted to eat – though it was all rather pretty and colorful. From there I sort of unofficially turned to focusing on food from other cultures (Indian, Thai, traditional Mexican, etc). Now, since August or so, I’ve been enjoying using old cookbooks – be they gifts from our wedding over 10 years ago, hand me downs from various grandmothers, or 25 cent garage sale buys Morgan picked up years ago, I’m loving cooking my way through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

I had some pretty major flops, from rock hard cookies to cold sides to being completely unaware that lemon cucumber skin is extremely bitter. I… I did not always love this challenge. Like all good goals my journey has includes many “why the fuck did I decide to do this?!” moments.

I find the most difficult thing to master is timing. It feels like I spend an hour prepping everything, I turn on the stove or oven, and then EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT ONCE AND MY KIDS NEED HELP USING SOME ELECTRONIC THING AND THE CAT THROWS UP AND NOW STUFF IS BURNING AND WHY IS THIS NOT HOLDING TOGETHER? BABE CAN YOU HELP ME? OH SHIT THIS IS BURNING!

Shockingly though, against all odds, around April I found myself enjoying my time in the kitchen. Timing is still an issue and mistakes are still a regular occurrence, but somehow, I’m finding this fun. I think the change is related to confidence. I hated cooking because I was intimidated by it and bad at it. Every task felt like a judgement on my competency. This challenge forced me to try and in the end forced me to build up some confidence. Confidence to have fun, try things, throw away disgusting mistakes, and the confidence to say “it’s ok to like doing something you’re still not very good at.”

Lately, I’m finding myself drawn to baking as it relates to cultural tradition. This month, for example, we’re celebrating the mid-autumn festival popular throughout Asia a month late by making moon cakes. I masked up the kids and together we shopped our way through three Asian food markets to find lye water, golden syrup, lotus seeds and more. This process will involve combining indigents I am completely unfamiliar with, but look delicious. My moon cake press is in the mail and the kids have been ordered to work on paper lanterns as we learn the history of the festival and about the other cultures around us (stay tuned)!

For 2021 I want to keep it up, and in addition to some yoga and strength training goals, I’m setting a new New Year’s resolution to keep me in the kitchen: I’m going to bake my way through the Great British Baking Show technical challenges. This show may well be one of the reasons I decided on this challenge in the first place. Acknowledging that baking and cooking are two different arts, I’ve been taking both on in turn. This show, while a competition, is so cheery and supportive. I believe it has also convinced my husband to buy me a Kitchen Aid mixer for Christmas (thanks Paul and Mary!)

I look forward to recreating the tent in my own kitchen and imagining some ducklings and sheep wondering outside my window – perhaps kids and guinea pigs will be proper substitutes.

I’ve been posting Instagram stories of my cooking adventures with hashtag ElsbethCooks, though I’m slowly drifting away from having any social media accounts (Instagram is my last). I may share these baking adventure there, here, or no where – but know that most weekends I’m probably at home, cursing and baking.


“I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.”

Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing

I’m not a Christian, nor is my husband, but we celebrate Christmas. It’s kind of gross, I know. Ingenuine and dishonest. The holiday has so permeated our culture, particularly here in the Midwest, that I don’t have the heart to rip it away from my children. I’m not strong enough to deny them the tree, Santa, or jingle bells. Judge that for what you will.

I still feel, however, a need to be spiritual during winter each year – and not just in discussions of gratitude, giving, and family joy (which are also important) but in a deep and old way. I believe strongly in honoring the land and the earth. I don’t have any defined beliefs regarding what lays beyond our world and my suspicions vary day to day. One thing I’m sure of though, is that the cycle of the earth and the ground beneath our feet deeply matter in some ancient way.

To be clear, while it appeals to me somewhat, I’m not Wicca or Pagan either. I’m simply an agnostic descendant of Scandinavians who likes trees and experiencing all the seasons. It’s not a flashy station with a settled dogma, but it’s mine and here we are.

For the past few years I’ve held a special Winter Solstice dinner for my children by candlelight – this is the traditional “dark dinner” where we light every candle in the house and turn off every light bulb. We “light the night” to welcome back the sun as our days begin to stretch longer again. This year I added yule log decorating, some historical discussion of winter holidays that existed before Christmas existed, creating our own solstice lanterns, and a “moon walk”. The day was truly something special between my kids and I (my husband had to work that evening, but did join us for a follow up dark dinner the next evening).

I rarely require much decorum or silence my kids, but I asked for some while I read a few poems about nature, winter, and introspection. They agreed that serious moments, while potentially boring, “make things feel important.”

From our crafty family to you yours – Love, light, joy, and reflection.

“I speak cold silent words a stone might speak
If it had words or consciousness,
Watching December moonlight on the mountain peak,
Relieved of mortal hungers, the whole mess
Of needs, desires, ambitions, wishes, hopes.
This stillness in me knows the sky’s abyss,
Reflected by blank snow along bare slopes,
If it had words or consciousness,
Would echo what a thinking stone might say
To praise oblivion words can’t possess
As inorganic muteness goes its way.
There’s no serenity without the thought serene,
Owl-flight without spread wings, honed eyes, hooked beak,
Absence without the meaning absence means.
To rescue bleakness from the bleak,
I speak cold silent words a stone might speak.”

Robert Pack, Stone Thoughts


In April of 2015, roughly 3 months post-partum, I challenged myself to start walking one mile per day (or 30 per month). In May 2015 I started taking one photo each walk to document my journey and tagging it #mileadayinmay, later just #mileaday. A few months later I added running. Since then I’ve run three official half marathons and a handful of 5K and 10Ks. I lost 85lbs, reaching a peak low in the fall of 2015. Since then I’ve grown professionally somewhat significantly… and I’ve gained about 35lbs back. Whoops. I’ve been feeling so discouraged in my running, my weight, and my overall stress level. I loved feeling so strong, but lately find myself short on time to devote to fitness given my passion for my career, community obligations, and caring for two kids.

The long and short of it is this: time is precious and I can’t take the emails with me. I want my career to grow, but I need to take care of myself and my family. It may make things take longer, but I’ll have my health for that time. It’s time to let focus in, get back to work, and continue to be proud of journey (the scale’s opinion be damned).  My favorite thing about “mile a day” is that it is so doable. Just one mile per day; more if I can, but no pressure. Just get up and move. Celebrate small victories. From January 2015 (pre #mileaday but started tracking) to today, I have run and walked 1,900.04 miles. That’s a reason to be proud, setbacks and all.

To inspire myself, I combed my Instagram and pulled every photo I tagged #mileaday or #mileadayinmay. There are 520 of them, spanning from May 2015 to yesterday, September 25, 2017. They include walks, runs, and moments I associated with my fitness journey (seriously, just anything I tagged with #mileaday).

My comments and context has been stripped – I’ve saved only the images. They’re not in perfect chronological order, but a happy mess of achievement and determination.

These pictures show love, they celebrate several of the trips I’ve taken since 2015, they showcase Lincoln and the University, they remind me that I have passion, drive, and will power I never knew I had until I dug for it.

Here’s to another 520 photos and another 1,900 miles.

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2014 Park Challenge

Posted August 2014:

In April of 2013 my then almost-one-year-old son Maxwell and I embarked on a journey to visit every ‘Lincoln Parks and Recreation’ city park that includes a playground. There are 78 in total. This week, in August 2014, we finished.


The top two questions I get from friends and colleagues about the park challenge are (1) “Good God, why?” and (2) “Do you have a ranking system?”

“Good God, why?” and “Do you have a ranking system?”

I’m going to try to cover both of those here, but as type-A as I might be (and boy, am I) there is no ranking below. In fact, I’ve actively NOT done that, which I’ll explain. However, you can see our favorites by looking at the photos marked with the double asterisks in the park photos at the bottom of this post.

“Why?” That’s a fair question and one I asked myself a lot around parks 5 through 77.

There are a few reasons so let’s start with the first one: money. A variety of circumstances leading up to our son’s birth left us beyond broke the first year of his life. Not “we can’t go out to dinner or movie” broke, but “the electric company is threatening to shut off our lights” broke. It was humiliating and scary. I won’t go into the ins-and-outs of middle-class-post-professional-degree-poverty here (others have done it much better), but it suffices to say, at the time daycare and certainly enrichment activities just weren’t an option. My current full time position started as a part time position and my days home were boring. We needed something to do and that something had to be free. This also leads to my second “why.”

Whenever someone says “there’s nothing to do here” about Lincoln, I assume they would feel equally as bored anywhere else. Entertainment abounds when you’re open to it. If you’re willing to drop some cash, there is a concert, play, show, film, networking event, and so on somewhere almost every night of the week. But Lincoln is also fabulous for the frugal by choice or the frugal by circumstance. You can’t swing a bat without hitting a free to almost-free community event or public area. This is something I felt was worth exploring further.

The last “why” is simple and obvious to anyone who knows me: I am a goal orientated, list-loving, overzealous moron. Why go to the nearby parks when we could go to ALL THE PARKS?

The last “why” is simple and obvious to anyone who knows me: I am a goal orientated, list-loving, overzealous moron. Why go to the nearby parks when we could go to ALL THE PARKS? I used the Lincoln Parks and Recreation website to look up our nearby parks and saw this long glorious list that could be sorted by playgrounds! The idea dawned on me and I felt it would be a fun challenge. My husband reacted to the initial plan with common reactions to schemes, “you don’t have to do this,” “WHY?” and “don’t freak out if you never finish it, ok?” All fair comments. Later on, Morgan even took Max to several of the parks and has remained supportive, if not baffled, by my drive to finish this.

Anyhow, that’s why and how we got started.

“Which parks are the best?” Certainly we had a range of experiences and had some favorites, but it feels wrong to “rank” them or tell a neighborhood their park is the “worst” one – this is not meant  to reprimand those who have asked me to rank the parks, but a conclusion I came to near the end of this experience.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Parks budget, community revitalization, or the effects of poverty on children, but I do know children need a place to explore. Many children need that place to be accessible while mom or dad is at work and available without an admission fee. This experience truly opened my mind to the importance of free public space to a community. Sometimes gross, sometimes pristine, having a place to go, a place that is theirs, matters to kids.

This experience truly opened my mind to the importance of free public space to a community. Sometimes gross, sometimes pristine, having a place to go, a place that is theirs, matters to kids.

This was cemented to me as our own financial and professional lives changed throughout the duration of this challenge. We could suddenly afford to go to Children’s Museum (and it’s a wonderful place – seriously, if you can, visit) but we also kept marching through Lincoln parks. There were still lots of kids at those parks. The parks weren’t always wholesome. Sometimes we found condoms, liquor bottles, underwear, and countless shoes (this isn’t the fault of Lincoln Parks and Recreation, often the cleaning and trash trucks pulled up while we there, but is a reality of any publicly used space). But almost always, we found other kids there playing, regardless of the state of the park.

I didn’t start this as an exercise in learning about and appreciating our community, but that is absolutely what it turned into.

I didn’t start this as an exercise in learning about and appreciating our community, but that is absolutely what it turned into. These parks are spread all over Lincoln and they led Max and me into many different neighborhoods and subdivisions. I know my city better as a result of this challenge. I met a ton of awesome parents and picked up some great parenting tips. I saw some examples of how I would rather not parent my children. We met a ton of awesome kids who played with Max and made our day. We met a ton of rude or unpleasant children. That’s life. I should note, those trends did not adhere to certain neighborhoods. Assholes live everywhere, as do awesome people.

…those trends did not adhere to certain neighborhoods. Assholes live everywhere, as do awesome people.

Max won’t remember this part. He’s too young for a sense of stewardship to the community to be ingrained in him as a result of this. But, damn if that kid didn’t get to play. Over the year and a half I’ve seen his physical skills develop rapidly. He can confidently climb ladders, build with gravel, push the swings, and tackle any slide. He loves to roll in the grass and blow seeds off of dandelion heads. He watched me pick up trash and talk with and worry over other kids. He got an education too, just a different one.park2

Max won’t remember this part. He’s too young for a sense of stewardship to the community to be ingrained in him as a result of this. But, damn if that kid didn’t get to play. …He got an education too, just a different one.

Now, in response to, “what challenge will you do with your second child?” (I’m currently 4 months pregnant) I can confidently say, “Not a one.” This was a lot of work, and while enlightening, the real reason we finished is because the idea of being labeling a quitter enrages my inner competitive sensibilities.

We will continue to patron our nearby parks, pick up litter, brag about our city, and make it a goal to go outside every single day, but lists? I think I’ll take a break from lists for a while so we can focus on our real jobs: playing.

Edited to Add: We were featured in our local newspaper! Lincoln Journal Star, ‘King of the Slides Hits all 78 Lincoln Playgrounds’ , Monday September 15, 2014

Elsbeth Magilton
August 2014