A life consumed by food. A lifetime consuming food.
I knew it was coming months ago, but Mid-Autumn Festival crept up on me like most holidays usually do. Over the past few months, I kept asking people (in Cantonese), “When is August 15th?” all the while chuckling in my head at how silly the question must sound. People knew exactly what I was inquiring about since the festival is on the same day each Chinese calendar year, but changes each year on the Western calendar. I can’t say I do a lot to celebrate the day, except following the tradition of giving away mooncakes. But, I like to make my own mooncakes instead of buying them from a store. Baking mooncakes this year turned out to be an extremely trying day of cooking for me, since it took me hours upon hours to come up with a finished product. I certainly don’t remember it taking so long last year to make mooncakes.
A few weeks ago I purchased a mooncake mould from Chinatown, adding to the two I already owned. The new one had three stamp plates: Doraemon and two Hello Kitty plates. Sadly, I didn’t get to use my new toy or any of the old ones this year (more on that to follow).
When I was looking for recipes last year I came across the Chiu Chow (Teochew) style mooncakes. Chiu Chow style mooncakes are very different from the types I see sold in bakeries here. What made them different were the layers of flaky pastry that are like a lace petticoat, also referred to as ‘Thousand Layer Mooncakes’. But, I wanted to make snow skin mooncakes so I could make use of the moulds. Snow skin mooncakes aren’t the common traditional type, but I like them better because they are usually smaller and don’t sit so heavy in my stomach. It would be like comparing brie to cheddar cheese texture-wise, but the flavors are more like peanut butter and sherbert.
This year I got a little over zealous and I wanted to make four different mooncakes, two of them being snow skin and two of them Chiu Chow style. I didn’t plan ahead of time and was scouring the internet the night before, analyzing recipes to see where I could find inspiration. Criteria I was looking for in the snow skin mooncake was that the dough had to be cooked. Last year my dad made a comment that they had a raw flour taste to them. But that’s what the recipe said! The rice flour was ‘Fried Glutinous Rice Flour’ I thought to myself. I hate to say it, but after he made that comment I just couldn’t eat the mooncakes without noticing all of the flavors.
My mooncake making day this year got off to a late start and I didn’t come up with all of the flavours until the day of cooking. I planned on making snow skin with milk custard, black sesame snow skin with milk custard, thousand layer black sesame with purple yams, and pandan with sweet potato.
After spending a long time compiling and making adjustments to recipes I found online, I was still unsure of where to start. I made the executive decision to prepare the yam fillings first because I thought it would be more efficient to have the filling ready when I finished the outer dough. To my dismay, the grocery store mislabelled their sweet potatoes for purple yams and I only found out after cooking them. Luckily, I purchased some purple yams from another grocery store too.
Starting with the sweet potatoes, I removed the skins and beat them in the mixer with milk, eggs, and other ingredients to flavour and add richness. After mixing everything together I had to cook off the liquids in a saucepan over the stove. Twenty minutes went by slaving away, stirring constantly, but it was still to thin and sticky to form a proper filling. Instead, the sweet potato will have to become a casserole of some kind over the next few days. I didn’t do the same thing with the purple yams, instead I just added a little butter, and condensed milk. They still turned out fine without any additional cooking.
I also had to make the custard filling, but I was short an egg. I figured it wasn’t a big deal and went on ahead anyways. I got the recipe for the custard from a YouTube video. In the video, the custard came together in no time at all, but mine failed to have the same outcome. I stirred for a long time thinking it was because I had to double the recipe, until I started to get frustrated and remembered that I was short an egg. Since I didn’t have any more eggs to try to salvage the custard I moved onto the skins for the Chiu Chow mooncakes.
The Chiu Chow mooncakes were highly labour intensive to make because it required two types of dough and a filling. Making two flavours in the Chiu Chow style also meant that I had flavour one of the two original doughs separately, bringing that to three types of dough. After washing and toasting the black sesame I poured some into the food processor, but the seeds were too fine for the food processor to grind. What I then had to do was pull out my immersion blender and process the seeds with the dry grinder attachment (more dishes to wash!).
For the pandan flavoured mooncakes I wanted to extract flavour from real pandan leaves by boiling the ones I had in the freezer. After simmering them for a while I took a whiff of the pot and didn’t think the leaves imparted much flavour. Last year, I purchased pandan flavouring from a Filipino grocery store and hadn’t opened it, so I decided it would be a good opportunity to use it.
On the sites that I looked at, the recipes for the Chiu Chow mooncakes called for the use of shortening and white vinegar. My guess would be that lard was used instead of shortening in the traditional recipe. I didn’t have lard, and if I did use lard I would want to render my own from scratch, so I decided to use part butter for flavor, and part shortening for stability. In lieu of the vinegar, I used lemon juice because I thought it would taste better.
Once I had the dough together I had to rest the it before continuing. That’s when I started on the snow skin. I put all the ingredients together, but I didn’t have the glutinous rice flour called for in the recipe. I substituted with ‘Fried Glutinous Rice Flour’, thinking it was the same type of flour except fried beforehand. The mixture was very gluey when I put it into the steamer. When the dough came out of the steamer it was still gluey, but I continued to follow the instructions and chilled the dough thinking it would turn out okay.
As the snow skin chilled I went back to the Chiu Chow mooncakes. I had to wrap one dough into the other, then roll out the dough, roll up the dough, and then repeat the rolling process. Each time I completed one set of rolling it would be enough to wrap four portions of filling. I had a lot of filling to go through.
The dough was very crumbly and the first few mooncakes weren’t too pretty, but I wanted to bake at least one batch to see how would turn out. As I rolled and wrapped, I looked over at the blob of custard, now chilled. It wasn’t exactly shapeable, but it was solid enough to be able to wrap. Finally, I was ready to bake the first batch with some of the black sesame-yam and some pandan-custard. It was supposed to take between from 15-30 minutes, just enough time to finally make myself a quick dinner of wedge salad with ranch dressing topped with blue cheese.
It was six hours into cooking, and I hadn’t come up with anything edible yet. I needed a break, so I told my cousin I would bring the mooncakes over to him and his family once the batch was finished baking so they could be guinea pigs. Fifteen minutes into baking I removed a mooncake from the oven, and it seemed too soft. Breaking the mooncake open revealed a what looked to be uncooked dough. I was thinking I might’ve had to trash the entire day’s work.
Grimly, I watched the clock and the mooncakes slowly cook in the oven. They weren’t changing. No puffing, no browning, no nothing! Thankfully when I removed them at the half hour mark they had firmed up. They looked pretty with the stripes of colour, but didn’t have the frilly layering effect I had seen in pictures. I checked on the snow skin mooncake dough, as it was now chilled, it was still gluey, so it ended up in the trash.
There was no turning back now, so I packed up three green mooncakes and three black ones that were still warm from the oven. I headed out of the house, leaving the war zone with flour, utensils, bowls, and packages all over the kitchen counters. When I arrived at my cousin’s house I sat down with my uncle at the dining table where we were shortly joined by my aunt, and two cousins. The mooncakes were on the table and I kept my fingers crossed. My uncle reached for one and his expression didn’t change as he ate a black sesame purple yam mooncake. He chewed slowly as I waited for the first stone to be cast. “Very rich yam flavour,” he commented. Okay… so not jumping for joy, but he didn’t stop eating either. That must’ve been a good sign.
My younger cousin gobbled up a pandan egg custard mooncake as my aunt offered me some mooncakes that she had made. My aunt and I continued to talk about making the little pastries and how time consuming it was, then we moved into the kitchen to talk about ingredients for moon cakes. When I returned to the dining table my younger cousin had already helped herself to a black sesame moon cake.
I went home feeling a little lighter and finished making the remainder of the mooncakes. I am glad someone enjoyed my creation, but we’ll see what my dad has to say. I hope I can improve my mooncake making skills next year when Mid-Autumn festival rolls around. At this point while I’m typing this, I certainly do not intend on another mooncake cooking attempt this year because my wrist still aches from all the kneading and wrapping.