Moon cakes are the traditional pastries eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie), a Chinese holiday which falls on Sept. 22 this year. While many people may be familiar with the Cantonese version of moon cakes — the rich, chewy-skinned square pastries filled most commonly with lotus, red bean, or date paste and salted egg yolk — other regional versions of this “Chinese fruit cake” exist. One such type is lu dou peng, a Taiwanese variation known for its delicate crust and sweet-savory mung bean paste filling.
To get the proper flaky texture, these Taiwanese moon cakes utilize a lard or shortening-based laminated dough formed by combining and rolling two separate doughs together. The “outer dough” has water added to it, providing the steam needed to get the pastry to puff up and separate into thin layers. The “inner dough” has a higher ratio of shortening (or lard) to flour, which gets encased in the outer dough and becomes layered throughout the dough through the process of folding and rolling. Before the moon cakes are baked, they are sometimes brushed with an egg wash or finished with a red-inked stamp designating the baker’s surname.
The filling itself is traditionally a sweetened mung bean paste with a slightly sandy texture. Because Taiwanese cuisine often offers a juxtaposition of salty and sweet flavors, a savory mixture of curried or five spice-flavored minced pork, shiitake mushrooms and shallots is often placed in the center of the sweet filling. These days, whether because of issues of perishability or mass production and convenience, many bakeries have resorted to replacing the fragrant filling with pork sung (a fluffy, dried pork product) instead. Even the “plain” and “sweet” moon cakes without the meaty centers have a hint of something savory to them. The steamed, mashed mung beans are sweetened with sugar and cooked in oil that is gently infused with the flavor of sauteed shallots. Sneaky? Maybe, but it works.
While these moon cakes do require a fair bit of time and effort to make, they’re well worth it for this once-a-year occasion.
Taiwanese Moon Cakes
For outer dough:
For inner dough:
- To make the outer dough, place the shortening, flour, milk powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on low speed until clumps the size of peas form, stopping to scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl as necessary, about 2 minutes. Add the water and beat until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture comes together and has the texture of soft cookie dough, about 30 seconds.
- Use a tablespoon measure to divide the dough into 12 evenly sized 1-tablespoon balls. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
- To make the inner dough, place the flour and shortening in a medium bowl and mix with a rubber spatula until well combined and the texture of a stiff frosting. Cover and refrigerate until slightly firm, about 30 minutes. Using a teaspoon measure, divide the dough into 12 evenly sized 1-teaspoon balls.
- Working one piece at a time, flatten each outer dough ball into a disk and place 1 ball of the inner dough in the center. Bring the edges of the outer dough up together, pinch shut, and roll between the palms of your hands into a ball.
- On a silicone mat or plastic wrap-lined work surface, roll each dough ball flat with a rolling pin. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll flat. Turn the dough 90 degrees, fold into third, then roll flat again. Roll the dough up like a jelly roll, then set aside. Repeat with remaining dough.
- Preheat an oven to 375 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one piece at a time, roll the prepared dough flat and place in the palm of your hand. Place 1 piece of mung bean paste in the center of the dough, then bring the edges of the dough up together to cover the paste, pinch shut, and lightly roll between the palms of your hands. Gently press the top of the moon cake to flatten it slightly and place it, seam-side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and mung bean paste, spacing the moon cakes evenly apart. Bake until pastry is opaque and very lightly golden, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
Mung Bean Paste
Makes about 2¼ cups
¼ cup vegetable oil
- Place the mung beans in a medium bowl and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Cover with plastic wrap and soak 4 hours; drain in a colander. Spread the beans in an even layer on a large plate.
- Set a steamer rack into a wok and fill with enough water to come halfway between the bottom of the wok and the top of the rack. Alternatively, fill the base of an 11½ – to 12-inch tiered steamer pot halfway with water and place a perforated steaming tier on top. Place the plate of beans either on top of the rack in the wok or into the top layer of the steamer pot; cover. Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat and steam until the beans are tender, about 20 minutes.
- Set a ricer over a medium bowl and pass the steamed mung beans through in batches.
- In a wok or large skillet, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute until golden and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the shallots; discard or set aside for another use.
- Add the riced mung beans, sugar, and salt and cook, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, until the mixture forms a soft, pliable paste, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Roll the paste into 12 balls, each about 3 tablespoons in volume.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photo credits: Sandra Wu