Sunday, October 14, 2018

Once Upon A Mooncake...






We both grew up with the tradition of eating Cantonese-style mooncakes (月餅) around this time each year, to symbolize the Mid-Autumn Festival.  Like all other Lunar-calendar-based holidays, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on a different day every year.  The only reliable cue of its arrival is the appearance of mooncakes for sale at the Asian grocery stores.  I'm not sure how our parents decided on which ones to buy - there were so many different kinds, and they all look equally gorgeous to me. But one thing is for sure: our parents never bothered (or dared) to make these themselves. So, when Wes told me that he wanted to attempt this task, I knew that it would be a beast. He knew too, but when does this guy ever back down from a complicated cooking challenge?



Mooncakes consist of a thin, tender pastry skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling, and may contain one or more whole salted egg yolks in their center as the symbol of the full moon. They're intricately imprinted with floral patterns and characters representing longevity, harmony, etc.  I must be getting old, but I think that the ones from the store are extremely sweet, quite oily, and full of suspicious preservatives.  I figured that making them ourselves would give us control over all of those elements and some creative freedom. I have always fantasized of matcha-flavored mooncakes, so we experimented with that. I also do not like to eat the chalky and overly salty egg yolks, so I developed a recipe for a faux egg yolk using kabocha squash, which uncannily bears the same color.







This process was not without bumps in the road.  Sometimes, potholes.  It was almost impossible to find golden syrup. The black sesame filling did not come together. We hadn't thought of pre-soaking the red beans overnight.  We needed to find a spray bottle.  The coconut oil that we bought was not correct (should have bought virgin coconut oil, not filtered).  The kitchen scale was running low on batteries.  Conversions, fractions, division, multiplication, subtraction, plain old addition, and keeping track of all of those measurements... my brain was going to explode.  Our first batch turned out great-looking, but bad-tasting.  Our second batch turned out bad-looking, but great-tasting.  And our final batch turned out just right, thank the Lord.


And so begins the weeklong saga of stumbling our way through learning how to make our own mooncakes.


September 15, 2018
We started the day out quite normally...it was a Saturday and we had no specific plans for the day.  I went to my yoga class, then worked a couple of hours at the skilled nursing facility, and then we met for lunch at Porta Via Italian Foods.  We mused over our plans to make mooncakes over our lamb sandwich and Italian sub and while I continued to slowly nibble away at my food, Wes started to read about how to make the mooncakes in depth.  We realized that the entire process would be extremely drawn-out, so we set out for the Asian supermarket after lunch to gather the ingredients for both the dough and the filling.



It was so hard to find the golden syrup!  We went to three supermarkets before we found it, and the last one was a total fluke.  Nobody had any idea what I was talking about...and I showed them photos, I said it in Chinese, I even asked my mom...so just as we were about to give up and attempt to make our own, we found some at a local gourmet food store called Howie's Market simply because we were stopping in there for some andouille sausage for dinner.  Otherwise, it can be ordered on Amazon or (we later discovered) found at some Whole Foods markets.


While we boiled crab, lobster, potatoes, and Chinese broccoli for dinner (yes, we are so extra), we made the dough.  It was not too hard.  I also made a first attempt at the red bean filling, using the Instant Pot pressure cooker because it would be possible to cook the red beans without having pre-soaked them.  As the dough and filling chilled in the refrigerator, we cracked crab and lobster and watched a Dodgers game on TV.  There were a lot of dishes to do after everything and it was nearly midnight!

Here are the recipes that we ended up sticking with:

Mooncake Dough

Materials needed: kitchen scale, sifter

Ingredients:

56 grams golden syrup*
1/2 teaspoon lye water (kansui)
20 grams vegetable oil (some people use peanut oil)
1/8 teaspoon salt, and a pinch for the egg wash
100 grams cake flour, and extra to dust the mooncake dough (for matcha mooncakes: 97 grams cake flour, and 3 grams matcha powder)
1 large egg yolk (for the egg wash)

Instructions:
  1. Combine golden syrup and kansui in a large bowl. Mix with a spatula until emulsified.
  2. Add vegetable oil and mix again until evenly blended. They will still appear separated, but try to mix as evenly as possible.
  3. Sift cake flour into the bowl. Gently fold the dough with a motion of scraping from bottom to top, like you are folding a cake dough. Do not stir the dough in a circular motion. It will toughen the dough.
  4. When the flour is fully combined, shape the dough into a ball. The dough should be soft and a bit sticky but still hold its shape. Slowly add more flour if the dough is too difficult to handle. Gently knead the dough a few times with hands with a folding motion. Seal with plastic wrap. Let rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Gently knead the dough a few more times and place it back in the plastic wrap. Let rest for another 20 to 30 minutes. Then the dough will be ready to use.







Mooncake Filling

Materials needed: Instant Pot, a food processor, a sieve or colander, regular heavy-bottomed pot or pan, a spatula

Ingredients:

1cup red beans, dry
2/3 cups powdered sugar (to taste)
6 tablespoons butter (or other solid fat. some people use coconut oil, just make sure it's the virgin solid one!)
2 tablespoons of glutinous rice flour

Instructions:
  1. Rinse the red beans in running water until water is clear. Discard any pieces that are floating. Drain water.
  2. Transfer the beans to the Instant Pot and add 3 cups of water to your pressure cooker.
  3. Cover and lock the lid of your pressure cooker. If you’re using an Instant Pot, turn it on and press the “Bean/Chili” button. Make sure the steam release handle points at “sealing” and not “venting”.
  4. When it’s done cooking, the Instant Pot will switch automatically to “Keep Warm” mode. Let the pressure slowly release by itself for 15-20 minutes. Before opening the lid, turn the steam release handle to vent and release any leftover pressure.
  5. Drain the beans, then add them to a food processor and process on high until smooth. I've found that it is best to work in batches as to not overcrowd the food processor.
  6. In a pot or non-stick pan, add the red bean puree and turn on medium low heat.
  7. Using a spatula to constantly stir the puree so that it does not burn.  Cook down until you achieve a thick paste. Add the sugar and butter a bit at a time, every 10 minutes, ensuring that all is well absorbed before adding more. This process takes about 30-40 minutes - it's an arm workout for sure. Add the glutinous rice flour - it is possible to put more if needed to make the filling thicker.
  8. The filling is done once it can hold its shape and a rubber spatula comes out clean.
  9. Let the filling cool until it’s only warm to the touch. If you pre-make the filling, store it in a clean, air-tight container after it has cooled completely.  Place into the refrigerator. The shelf life in the refrigerator should be at least a week.






September 16, 2018
We went to Irvine in the morning and stayed until afternoon to celebrate Margaret and Andrew's birthdays AND engagement by eating Korean food!  I forgot to mention, but last night while we were in the frenzy of making dough and filling (and the seafood boil), Wes also made two Korean banchan dishes.  I woke up this morning and made a gigantic amount of japchae.  We were pretty much nonstop cooking.  After coming back from Irvine, we went straight into our kitchen to continue with the mooncake project.  After successfully turning out about 20 mooncakes (with a few ugly ones in the mix), we went to dinner at Raffi's Place with some friends who we hadn't seen in a while.  It was nice to sit down to somebody else's cooking for the first time this weekend!

Shaping the Filling
(note: these measurements are for mini mooncakes)

Materials needed: kitchen scale
  1. Divide the hardened filling into 20 grams per portion (if not planning on putting in an egg yolk, make it 28 grams). Shape each portion into a small ball using your hands.
  2. To add an egg yolk, flatten the ball against your palm.  Place half a duck egg yolk in the middle. Wrap the red bean filling until it fully covers the egg yolk. Roll with hands to shape a ball. If you hold the filling ball up to a mooncake mold, the ball should be slightly smaller than the opening of the mold.
  3. To shape the mooncake filling, flatten one red bean ball with the hands. Place half a duck egg yolk in the middle. Wrap the sesame paste until it fully covers the egg yolk. Roll with hands to shape a ball. If you hold the filling ball up to a mooncake mold, the ball should be slightly smaller than the opening of the mold.
  4. Place mooncake filling in the fridge to cool. Give the balls some time to harden, about 15 minutes.






Assembling the Mooncakes

Materials needed: kitchen scale, rolling pin, parchment paper, mooncake molds, cake flour for dusting
  1. Work on the mooncakes one at a time. Scoop 22 grams of dough and place between two pieces of parchment paper. Press it into a flat disc. Roll into a small round sheet.
  2. Place the filling ball in the center of the dough sheet. Carefully wrap the dough around the filling. Spread the dough until it seals the filling in completely. Try to wrap the filling in a thin, even layer of dough. If you find the dough on some spots is too thick, pull off the dough and smooth the surface. It is doesn’t matter if the dough is so thin that it reveals the color of the filling.
  3. Dust both hands and the dough with a bit of cake flour. Roll the dough betweens hands so the surface will be dusted evenly.
  4. Slide the plastic pattern disc into the mooncake mold, pattern side down. Sometimes you need to twist the handle a bit to make the pattern disc slide to the end.
  5. Carefully place the mooncake into the mold. If you find it difficult to do without scraping off dough, you can gently roll the mooncake to fit into the mold.
  6. Place the mold on the parchment and press the handle until you cannot move it any further. Pull the handle up and release the mooncake.
  7. Carefully hold the mooncake without squeezing it, and remove the pattern disc.
  8. When finished, place in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes to let them harden a little bit after all of that fumbling!














Baking the Mooncakes

Materials needed: oven, baking tray, spray bottle, egg yolk, brush, flat airtight containers for storage
  1. Preheat oven to 360 degrees F (180 C). 
  2. Place mooncakes on a big metal baking tray, 1 inch (2cm) apart. Spray a thin layer of water onto the mooncakes to prevent the dough from cracking. 
  3. Beat the egg yolk with a pinch of salt in a small bowl. 
  4. Bake on the middle rack for 8 to 9 minutes, until the dough toughens and the edges of the mooncakes start to turn golden. 
  5. Remove the mooncakes from the oven. Brush a thin layer of egg wash on the surface of the mooncakes. Only brush the top surfaces, not the vertical surfaces. If you accidentally brush too much egg wash and it fills up the pattern, use a small brush to clean the gaps and remove excess egg wash. 
  6. Place mooncakes back in the oven and continue baking until the egg wash turns golden brown, about 8 minutes. 
  7. Let mooncakes cool in the tray before removing.  Use a spatula to gently push mooncakes to detach them from the baking tray. Transfer to a plate to cool completely. 
  8. Store mooncakes in an airtight container. The mooncakes can be served after 24 hours, and they will look and taste better after 3 days. 








September 17, 2018
We let the mooncakes sit for 24 hours to allow the oil from within to infuse to the outside.  Wes texted me saying that they looked amazing when he opened the box after getting home from work, but it all changed when we cut one open.  Yeah, it looked great on the outside--golden brown on top, with that light sheen of oil, but the inside was a desolate grey color that looked sort of like a faded brick, with noticeable gaps between the filling and the walls of the mooncake dough casing.  Wes was supportive and told me that it still tasted good, but I was adamant that the filling needed to be redone.  It was pretty bad.


So the next few days were devoted completely to getting the filling right.  I made a second batch of red bean filling while Wes cooked us a delicious dinner of Cantonese-style fried shrimp, scrambled egg with loofah (that big long loofah that my mom and dad gave us yesterday in Irvine), and chicken stir-fried with kabocha (the same one that I used for the mooncake faux yolke).  I used coconut oil instead of butter this time for the filling, and tried a different method by adding more water during the blending process and then straining it all through a sieve to make it smoother.  We tested it and it tasted really great and had the perfect, velvety texture, but it turned out to be just too soft to hold up to the baking.




September 18, 2018
Wes went on a business trip to Chicago, so he left this morning and I had to continue onward on my own.  The frustrating part about making the filling was that I had to get through the whole process of waiting for it to chill and making balls, and then wrapping those balls with measured amounts of thinly-pressed dough, and then molding them, and finally baking them, before knowing whether or not anything worked.  The filling from last night yielded mooncakes that came out looking like they'd been hit by an earthquake followed by a landslide.  Not to worry, they were eventually gobbled up by my coworkers.  I realized that we had used the wrong kind of coconut oil (who knew that there were different kinds?) and so in an attempt to salvage two-and-a-half cups of red beans and Wes's sieving efforts, I stuck in another stick of butter, which is a hard fat.  Another cycle of the entire process later, I was let down yet again.  It didn't work - the mooncakes continued to sag pitifully.  It's comical now, but in the moment it was purely aggravating!  At one point, I slammed the baking tray down onto the countertop just a little bit too hard, and the whole mooncake literally flattened before my eyes.  The even funnier part was that Wes had to experience all of this over FaceTime.


By now, it was late at night again and I had work the next day, but I was determined to make some filling and make it right.  Time was running out - I really needed to get this down before the big day!  So...I stayed up til 1:00 AM, pressure-cooking red beans, blending them (in batches this time), and sautee-ing them with only butter, sugar, and glutinous rice flour until my arms were about ready to fall off.  No added water this time, and no coconut oil!  I studied a few Youtube videos to make sure that I was doing it right.  It was helpful to see - I kept on flipping and sauteeing that unforgiving mass of red beans until it finally became essentially like play-dough in the bottom of the wok, just like in those videos.



September 19, 2018
Mooncakes were on my mind all night, and so it was no surprise that I woke up to thinking about them.  While I readied myself for work, I kept thinking about how the filling should probably be sweeter...so I grabbed it out of the refrigerator, dumped it out into the wok again, folded some more powdered sugar into it, and then shoved it back into the container and back into the fridge.  I was miraculously not late for work, but I was frazzled!  It was certainly not really as fun without Wes there, and this was already my third time making the same darn red bean filling.  At least I didn't blow up the pressure cooker, short the food processor, or scorch the bean paste into the bottom of the wok.  See, it could have been worse.

My coworkers willingly ate all of the mess-ups from the night before, bless their hearts.  I also ate more messed-up mooncakes than I have ever eaten in one season.  They actually tasted pretty good...they just looked really bad.

I came home from work and checked out the red bean filling.  It looked solid and firm enough, and definitely a lot less grainy than the first batch.  I made one mooncake (it still took 20-million steps, though), and it did not collapse!  Hallelujah.  Then, I decided to give the kabocha squash egg yolk idea another try.  It didn't work out so well the first time (was really gummy) and it didn't work out the second time (too mushy), but after all of my experimentation with the red bean filling, I figured I knew what to do to get it to work.  I added butter and a little pinch of glutinous rice flour to the steamed pieces of kabocha, and let it all harden in the refrigerator.  After it had chilled, I was actually able to roll them into little balls.  Voila, they looked exactly like egg yolks!

Kabocha"yolk" filling recipe

Ingredients:

80 g of kabocha squash
20 g of butter
1/2 tsp of glutinous rice flour

Instructions:
  1. Cut the kabocha into 1-inch-thick slices and steam them for ~15 minutes, until soft and tender when poked with a fork.
  2. Remove the orange innards from the dark green peel - discard the peel.
  3. Mash the squash with some melted butter and the glutinous rice flour.
  4. Once it is all incorporated, place into the refrigerator and allow to harden (~20 minutes).
  5. Remove from refrigerator and scoop out 8 grams, shape it into a small ball and set aside.  This should yield approximately 10 balls.
  6. Allow the balls to firm up in the refrigerator.





(kabocha "yolk" on the left, actual salted egg yolk on the right)

September 20, 2018
Home stretch.  Now that the filling was correct and the kabocha "yolks" seemed to also be holding up, all that was left to do was to follow the steps.  My goal was to turn out one batch before meeting up with my friend for dinner, but time was limited and I ended up leaving them in the oven as I dashed out.  Sadly, they all cracked.  I was super annoyed at myself for allowing something like that to happen, but at least I knew that the texture of the filling was correct at last!  I would have made another few just to be sure, but I was going delirious with this long and error-ridden process and I was so sick of having my entire days revolve around these damn mooncakes.  Wes told me to just stop making them for now and wait until he got back so that we can work together on wrapping up.



September 21, 2018
Wes returned home from Chicago, bought some more dough ingredients, and made four more batches of dough: 2 regular, 2 matcha.  We decided to have mercy upon ourselves and buy take-out food for dinner rather than cook elaborate meals simultaneously.  It's not as fun, but we got work to do.  Before digging into our sinigang and chicken adobo, we rolled the filling into balls, tucking egg yolks in some, and kabocha squash yolks in others.  It was much quicker with a second pair of hands.  Then, after we had finished eating dinner, we baked a bunch of batches like clockwork, rotating them through the countertop, the refrigerator, and the oven.  We turned out approximately 30 little mooncakes by 12:30 AM.  Wes was still jet-lagged from being in Chicago all week, so he was so exhausted by the end of it.  We were finally done...FINALLY.

Matcha Mooncake Dough

Materials needed: kitchen scale, sifter

Ingredients:

56 grams golden syrup*
1/2 teaspoon lye water (kansui)
20 grams vegetable oil (some people use peanut oil)
1/8 teaspoon salt, and a pinch for the egg wash
97 grams cake flour, and extra to dust the mooncake dough (for matcha mooncakes: 97 grams cake
3 grams matcha powder
1 large egg yolk (for the egg wash), beaten with a little salt

Instructions:
  1. Combine golden syrup and kansui in a large bowl. Mix with a spatula until emulsified.
  2. Add vegetable oil and mix again until evenly blended. They will still appear separated, but try to mix as evenly as possible.
  3. Sift cake flour and matcha powder into the bowl. Gently fold the dough with a motion of scraping from bottom to top, like you are folding a cake dough. Do not stir the dough in a circular motion. It will toughen the dough.
  4. When the flour is fully combined, shape the dough into a ball. The dough should be soft and a bit sticky but still hold its shape. Slowly add more flour if the dough is too difficult to handle. Gently knead the dough a few times with hands with a folding motion. Seal with plastic wrap. Let rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Gently knead the dough a few more times and place it back in the plastic wrap. Let rest for another 20 to 30 minutes. Then the dough will be ready to use.
















September 22, 2018
The mooncakes needed to sit for 24 hours in order for the oil within to infuse properly, so by dinnertime, they were ideal for serving.  My brother, Wesley, drove down from Northern California to celebrate with us, and we all went to have some dimsum and then came home to take a few more photos!  It was fun to finally sit down and admire our work.







We brought the mooncakes to my family gathering and everybody actually liked them!  One of my aunts who does not like mooncake really enjoyed ours, probably because they are less oily and less sweet.  People were intrigued by the kabocha yolk idea and the matcha tea flavored dough.  Wes also dropped off a big box to his mom to pass out to the relatives on his side of the family.  With all of the fuss, we almost forgot to go outside and look up at the moon (the whole point of all of this).  After we drove back from the family gathering, we stood in the carport and noticed how brightly the moon was shining, illuminating all of the clouds in the night sky.  It was awesome - we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival like never before.  My week was turned upside down because of it, but was it worth it?  Yes!  We learned a lot, and now that the recipe has been documented here, we hope that it'll be a piece of (moon)cake to do again next year!










2 comments:

  1. You guys are amazing! You should write a cookbook about learning to make traditional Chinese food—I would buy it!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! It would be so cool to make a book...maybe someday :)

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