Moon Cakes, Part 2: Made Flavorful and Fresh at Home
This moon-cake recipe is Cantonese on the surface, but it envelops a Suzhou-style crunchy nut and fruit center. It was adapted from the repertoire of renowned Sichuanese chef Chen Kenmin. (His son, Chen Ken’ichi, later gained fame as “Iron Chef Chinese” on the Japanese program “Iron Chef.”)
Moon Festival Flavors
Homemade moon cakes are as different from store-bought as night and day, but few Chinese make their own anymore, perhaps because a good recipe has (at least until now) been hard to find.
Although the recipe may appear long, don’t be discouraged — it’s not difficult. And it produces moon cakes that are fresh, flavorful and not overly sweet, with caramel deepening the colors and aromas. Dark brown sugar and butter are used in the center instead of the usual white sugar and lard in this updated version, and both dried cranberries and green pumpkin seeds glitter like colorful sequins, adding gently tart and nutty touches to these beloved pastries. If you are interested in some other delectable fillings — such as red Chinese dates with toasted walnuts or red bean paste with steamed chestnuts — please follow the link here.
Fruit and Nut Moon Cakes – 五仁月餅 Wuren yuebing
Makes 10 large three-inch moon cakes, or about 30 one-inch mini moon cakes
For the caramel:
2½ cups powdered sugar
1 cup filtered water (divide in half)
3 tablespoons white rice vinegar or cider vinegar
For the fruit and nut filling:
1 heaping cup (about 25 large) dried red Chinese dates
1 cup filtered water
½ cup hulled pumpkin seeds
¼ cup dried cranberries, or golden raisins
¾ cup chopped toasted walnuts
½ cup toasted sesame seeds
½ cup sliced almonds
¼ cup Chinese rose-scented white liquor (Meiguilu), or vodka
2 tablespoons caramel (recipe above)
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup dark brown sugar, packed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon rice flour (Mochiko brand recommended)
For the pastry:
2⅔ cups regular white Asian flour (which has a lower gluten content)
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon caramel (recipe above)
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil
Extra flour as needed
For the glaze:
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons Chinese rose-scented white liquor (Meiguilu), or vodka
1 tablespoon caramel (recipe above)
1. To make the caramel, place the powdered sugar and ½ cup water in a steel pan (so that you can easily see the sugar change color). Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, cover for a few minutes so that the steam washes down the sugar crystals, and then uncover. Add the vinegar and bring the pan back to a boil without stirring. Quickly boil the sugar syrup for about 10 minutes, until it starts to turn amber. When it is an even golden brown, lower the heat to medium-high and then add the rest of the water – be careful, as the caramel will boil furiously at this point, so direct the pan away from your face. As the boiling starts to simmer down, stir the caramel with a silicone spatula until the caramel is smooth. Pour the caramel into a heatproof measuring cup and let it cool to room temperature; you should have about 1¼ cups.
2. For the filling, cook the dates in the water until they are soft and the water has been absorbed. Remove the dates from the heat, and when cool enough to handle, pit them if they are not already pitted. Carefully chop them into a fine paste, using a knife so that you can remove any pits or shards that you come across. Place the date paste in a medium work bowl. Add the rest of the filling ingredients to the date paste and mix well. Divide it into 10 even mounds if you are making large moon cakes or 30 small mounds if you are making the mini cakes. (You may make the filling ahead of time and refrigerate it covered.)
3. To make the dough, place the flour in a medium work bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil and caramel. Mix these together gently to form a very soft dough. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons flour on a smooth work surface and roll the dough out into an even 20-inch rope; cut this into 10 pieces, each 2 inches wide. (If you are making the mini cakes, roll it into an even 15-inch rope and cut it into ½-inch pieces.) Roll each piece into a soft ball; cover the dough you are not immediately working on.
4. Heat the oven to 325 F; place a rack in the upper third of the oven to keep the bottoms of the pastries from burning; you will cook one sheet of pastries at a time. Line two cookie sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Mix together the glaze; have two pastry brushes, a thin spatula, your moon cake mold, and a pastry scraper ready. Dust the inside of your moon cake mold heavily with flour and knock out the excess.
5. Large moon cakes: Working on one pastry at a time, pat out one piece of dough into a 5- to 6-inch circle, making the center slightly mounded; place a portion of the filling in the center and wrap the dough around the filling. Lightly roll the now large ball between your palms so that the soft dough evenly covers the filling. Roll one side of the ball in some flour and then place the ball flour side down inside the moon cake mold. Press lightly but firmly on the ball so that it fills the mold. Then, turn the mold upside-down and whack it on your counter to release the pastry; it may take a few tries before it comes loose. Place the pastry on the prepare cookie sheet. Use one pastry brush to dust off any excess flour and use the other pastry brush to coat the moon cake all over with the glaze; repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 10 moon cakes. Small moon cakes: Do the same thing as above, only roll the dough out into circles about 3 inches wide; the filling should be rolled into balls roughly 1 inch in diameter.
6. Bake the moon cakes until they are a golden brown, around 25 minutes for the small cakes and 35-40 minutes for the large ones. Cool the pastries completely and serve them cut in wedges, preferably with cups of hot tea.
— The best Chinese dates are found in herbal shops where the turnover is fast and the dried ingredients are at their best. Look for plump, shiny dates with no sign of insects or powder at the bottom of the bag.
— Chinese dates that are sold as “pitted” were done so by machines, so beware of the occasional pit or chips.
— The dough is best made by hand, as food processors and mixers will excite the gluten in the flour and make the pastry tough. And, both patting out the dough and rolling it between the hands softens the caramel in it so it becomes more malleable.
— If you don’t have such a mold (which can easily be found online or sometimes in Chinese housewares shops) you can use any other 3-inch cake mold, or even a plain cupcake mold to shape the pastries. (Note: true round moon cake molds are about 1¼ inches deep and 3 inches across, while the smaller molds with three 1-inch-square depressions can be used for mini moon cakes; shallower ones than that are used for making confections like green bean tea cakes, or lüdou gao.)
— Moon cake molds come in many sizes and shapes. You can make moon cakes in just about any that are deep enough to hold two layers of pastry plus a generous layer of filling, which means at least 1-inch deep. The larger round molds I use have a little over a half cup capacity, while the small square ones hold about two tablespoons.
— This pastry has a high sugar content, so to protect the bottoms of the moon cakes from burning before the pastries are completely cooked, place the racks in the upper third of your oven and use either double-thick sheets or two baking sheets placed on top each other for extra insulation.
— Store the cooled moon cakes in a covered container. They can be preserved for longer storage if packed in freezer bags and frozen.
Top photo: Brushing glaze onto the moon cakes. Credit: Carolyn Phillips