What Are Mooncakes?

They’re Chinese pastries traditionally given as gifts during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is coming up. This year it starts on the 19th of September. Mooncakes are roughly analogous to Christmas fruitcakes in the West inasmuch as they’re loved by many, detested by others, but are inarguably the signature sweetmeat of the season.

The Mid-Autmn Festival is one of the four big festivals of the Chinese year and is what one might call a “moveable feast” in that the dates changes from year to year according to a.) the Chinese lunar calendar and b.) which weekend is closest to the actual date of the autumn full moon. It’s sort of like our Thanksgiving but with a little astronomy thrown in. Like Thanksgiving, it’s the party that follows the harvest.

Tradition dictates that during the Mid-Autumn Festival special measures are taken to honor the moon, hence the mooncake. Mooncakes are round cakes about 2-3 inches across and roughly and inch and a half tall. Essentially they’re cakes made of sweetened bean paste enclosed in a skin of pastry. In the middle of the bean paste is a bright yellow salted egg yolk…the “moon” in the mooncake.

Surely an unconventional combo for we Westerners, but having lived in a heavily Korean neighborhood back in Chicago I can tell you that sweet bean paste is very nice stuff. The salted yolk will be a new experience, but heck, I’m game. Let’s rock!

15 thoughts on “What Are Mooncakes?”

  1. You lost me at egg yolk. I have a visceral loathing of eggs that I can’t really describe. I cook them for my father and he says I do a very nice omelette, but the thought of eating an egg yoke much less a salted one? I’ll sit this one out.

  2. Never fear egg haters, there are more variations on moon cake than I can count. The tough thing is finding out whether the dough is traditional (i.e. made with lard) or not.

  3. What fun! I’ve never attempted to make a mooncake but I have a couple carved wooden molds as part of a collection of kitchen molds. I may actually get to give them a workout.

  4. …but what about the Moon Pies?

    Seriously, though. Sweet bean paste is great stuff. I remember steamed buns with sweet bean filling was my first introduction to the local cuisine when I did a tour of duty in South Korea. Yum!

    1. I’d never really tried bean paste until I got to know some Koreans in our old neighborhood. I was suspicious of bean pastes at first but eventually came to love them. Like any sweets you can do them well or badly. When good, they’re excellent!

      – Joe

  5. Hi Joe! Being Chinese and having many Chinese friends, we’ve received several boxes of mooncakes already! I’d also like to point out that lotus seed filling is just as popular since they make up the majority of the ones sold in supermarkets. I like to think that the combination of salted egg yolk and sweet lotus seed paste is like the Western equivalent of the salted caramel flavour 🙂 (hopes this makes the salted yolk less intimidating!)
    There is also snow skin or ice skin mooncake and is quite a change from the traditional one – though many Chinese still do not quite enjoy/accept it since it is a frozen dessert usually with fruity or coffee/tea flavours.
    And now I’m curious Joe – will you be making mooncakes soon? Or buy those 1000 calorie cakes from the store?

    1. Buy them? Are you kidding? I’m in this all the way, Vicki. I have my salted yolks and everything!


      – Joe

    1. It’s my pleasure, OBC! Now say a prayer that I can pull these off! 😉


      – Joe

  6. Love em. Can’t get enough of them and the best I ever tasted was from a bakery in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (A bus driver actually drove several blocks off of the regular route to drop us at the door of “his favorite” bakery. It was fortunate that we were his only passengers and could get that kind of personalized service.)

    But learning to make them, for me, was as difficult as mastering the Canelle. Maybe even more difficult since I think I mastered Canelle but not sure if I have mastered mooncakes. I like both red bean and lotus seed paste… and a double yolk if possible!

    I find the snow skin type (Taiwanese??) to be easier to make than the Cantonese mooncakes. Totally different but good. I made them before amassing my collection of Cantonese mooncake molds. For the red seal on them I used a large wax seal of my Scottish family crest. Definitely not traditional… at least I didn’t fill them with Haggis!

    I once asked a Chinese friend for some advise and I was told two good pieces of advise: Buy them, or receive them as a gift. Ha ha ha. Perhaps there is truth to that sage advise.

    1. Oh now you tell me, Shaw! Where were you BEFORE I launched off on this misguided escapade?

      Actually I’m feeling pretty good about this. I should have them nailed by the time the festival starts, don’t you think? I’ve got a full three weeks. Cannelés only took me two. 😉

      – Joe

      1. Haha Joe, I’m sorry for being the clueless guide on your escapade! Though I’m gonna have to disagree with Brian–I actually tried snowskin mooncakes for the first time a few weeks ago, and they didn’t turn out too well for me…even with a much better scale than the one I had with my first mooncake attempt, they ended up with skins that got either too tough/crumbly, or too greasy/wet. They also got mold disappointingly (disgustingly) quickly, since you have to let them sit at room temperature since the fridge hardens the skins, and I live in the humid, moldy South. Though I guess taking baking out of the equation simplifies things, but this is a baking blog! 🙂

        From your post on crusts though, sounds like you are indeed headed in a good direction! Best of luck!

        1. Thanks, Justine! I appreciate the sort-of encouragement! 😉

          Keep your fingers crossed.

          – J

  7. Oops…. I mistakenly used the term “snow-skin” to describe the Taiwanese mooncake. I am incorrect. The Taiwanese mooncake has a laminated dough comprising two different dough types. Snow skin is something else. Sorry.

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