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In my family my mother’s the cook and I’m the baker. That line is clearly defined and rarely crossed. So last week when my mother announced that she was going to bake mooncakes, I got a little defensive. For those who need a little background on mooncakes, one will be provided shortly, but the pertinent thing to know here is that mooncakes is one of those Chinese desserts best left to professional bakeries.

We finally got around to baking the said mooncakes last night – my mother made Suzhou-style mooncakes filled with pork, mushrooms and a type of Chinese vegetables, while I made the more traditional Canton-style sweet bean paste mooncakes.

Anyone who knows me knows that I substitute everything when necessary – I generally use what I have in the house and refuse to go to the store just for an extra ingredient or two. So for this recipe I forwent the salty egg yolks and substituted oil for lard and used muffin tins instead of a mooncake mold. The resulting mooncakes definitely didn’t look like the way they were supposed to look like, but they tasted just like store-bought mooncakes. Perhaps this can be considered my first failure in years as far as aesthetics went, but no matter – I’ve made adjustments so yours will turn out more like commercial mooncakes.

But first, a brief discourse on mooncakes. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration, which traditionally focuses on the myth of Chang’e, who supposedly lives on the moon. [There are various versions of this story so I will leave it up to you to Google it yourself.] The festival takes place on a different day each year as it is calculated using the Chinese calendar, a lunisolar calendar. Each year it is on the 15th of the eighth month, which generally means it’s between mid-September and mid-October on our Gregorian calendar. This year it’s September 22, but we’re celebrating it now since it’s a family celebration and by then classes and work will have sent us our different ways again.

I generally don’t write about or photograph my baking since I do it so often and since my camera’s been broken, but this weekend I have access to a usable, albeit old and low-tech camera, so for those curious enough to try their hands at this, here is a recipe accompanied by photos and adjustment suggestions.

All the ingredients you'll need, plus an egg.

For this mooncake recipe you’ll need:

Filling:

– 1 pound of sweet red bean paste (or lotus seed paste, mung bean paste, etc.)

Water-Shortening Dough:

– 2 cups flour

– 5 tablespoons vegetable oil OR 5 tablespoons lard OR 5 tablespoons shortening [DO NOT USE BUTTER]

– 10 tablespoons water

– 1/4 teaspoon salt

Flaky Dough:

– 1 cup flour

– 5 tablespoons vegetable oil OR 5 tablespoons lard OR 5 tablespoons shortening [again, DO NOT USE BUTTER]

Egg Yolk Wash:

– 1 egg, separated

– 1 tablespoon water

I used oil simply because I didn’t have any lard or shortening at home, not that I would ever use lard anyway. I’d suggest using shortening for best results as it has a better consistency. This is one of those instances when you cannot substitute butter for any of the aforementioned fats. Chinese food does not use butter. Unless you want to make sweet bean paste croissants, save the butter for some other baking adventure.

Make sure both types of dough are thoroughly kneaded.

Step 1: Mix all the ingredients for the water-shortening dough together in a medium or large mixing bowl. I suggest adding the oil/lard/shortening in two parts to allow for easier mixing.

Step 2: Knead the water-shortening dough on a dusted flour board until it is smooth and consistent.

Step 3: Mix all the ingredients for the flaky dough together in a medium mixing bowl. Again, it is best to mix in the oil/lard/shortening in two parts. It will be much more difficult to mix the ingredients of the flaky dough. Use a pressing technique to “smush” the ingredients together.

Step 4: Knead the flaky dough on the dusted flour board. Because of its flakiness, it is likely that your dough will continue to break into pieces. Just continue to knead and incorporate the fallen pieces until the dough stays together.

Separate the portions of water-shortening dough so they don't stick together but do not try to separate the flaky dough portions as they will simply break apart.

Step 5: Flatten each type of dough and cut each into 16 equal-sized portions.

Work fast when you're shaping the sweet bean paste balls so the paste doesn't start sticking to your hands.

Step 6: Take the sweet bean paste and shape into sixteen 1-inch balls. If you have a 1-inch fruit scooper that will also work and help speed up the process.

Step 7: Take one portion of the water-shortening dough and flatten it with the palm of your hand.

Step 8: Take one portion of the flaky dough and flatten it with the palm of your hand on top of the flattened water-shortening dough. The easiest way to do this is by breaking the flaky dough into two or three parts and pressing each onto the water-shortening dough separately.

Step 9: Fold the dough into thirds, hot dog style, thus incorporating the flaky dough into the water-shortening dough.

Step 10: Flatten the rolled-up dough and fold into thirds again, this time hamburger style. [Just pretend your hot dogs and hamburgers have three pieces of bread!]

When rolling the dough it is important that the center is thicker than the outer edges. Otherwise you risk having the filling fall through the dough.

Step 11: Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough into a 3-inch circle.

Step 12: Repeat with the remaining portions of dough.

When pinching the dough "pouch" together it's okay if you squish the filling. After all, it's going into the mold to be pressed.

Step 13: Place one sweet bean paste ball in the center of each portion of dough, then enclose the filling in a pouch-like fashion by pinching all the outer edges together in the middle.

A muffin pan will suffice if you don't have a mooncake mold. Ice cream bowls and other small round or square enclosures will also work as a substitute.

Step 14: Place each mooncake in the mooncake mold or substitute, pinched-side down.

Mooncake molds are available online for $10 – $20. Here’s an example of some traditional ones:

Mooncake molds also come in more modern shapes such as animals, Disney characters and Hello Kitty, to name a few.

Step 15: Remove the mooncakes from the mold and place on a greased and floured baking sheet. At this time preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (I always hate recipes that start off by telling you to preheat the oven to whatever degrees. The oven would be ready before I even got to step 5!)

Step 16: Crack an egg, separating the yolk from the whites. Beat the yolk, adding in water.

Step 17: Brush the egg yolk wash over the mooncakes. Like in any other baking endeavor, this will give the surface a more golden appearance.

Step 18: When the oven is ready, bake the mooncakes for 10 minutes.

If you use a muffin tin instead of a mooncake mold and only brush the mooncakes once with egg yolks, this is what your mooncakes will look like.

Step 19: Remove the mooncakes from the oven and brush them with the egg yolk wash again. Without this second wash the appearance will be more yellow and less golden.

Step 20: Put the mooncakes back in the oven and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove immediately.

Step 21: Allow mooncakes to cool to touchable temperature before trying to remove from the baking sheet to prevent the flaky dough from breaking apart.

Ta-da! If you use a proper mooncake press and follow the instructions, you should be able to get something like this:

This photo is from the Red Cook's homemade mooncakes experience. If you have the money to go the proper way, do so! They'll look much better.

Here’s the link to the Red Cook’s much more innovative, albeit acquired-taste recipe.

So my mooncakes tasted like mooncakes but didn’t quite look like them. Kind of like celebrities without makeup, you know? I won’t be making mooncakes for a while, not because these didn’t turn out perfectly, but rather because they are extremely fatty and hard-to-digest foods. It’s back to my baking without butter creations now.

And for those wondering why the post is called “Mooncakey, cakey, cake,” it comes from the very annoying Baskin-Robbins commercial a while back…except unbeknownst to me, it doesn’t say “ice creamy cakey cake,” but instead “ice cream n cake n cake.” Oh well.

For a little annoyance in your life:

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