You know you’re walking into a hardcore kitchen when the first thing you see is stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with gorgeous home-made mooncakes.
The women on my Dad’s side of the family in Singapore — they’re fearless cooks.
Recently, however, the task at hand was Chinese mooncakes, eaten to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls this Saturday.
Now, there are a few old stories that explain the reason for eating these little cakes, which usually are filled with sweet lotus-seed paste and come either with a thin, baked crust or a soft, pliant dough skin that’s scented with pandan, a vanilla-like flavoring used in many Southeast Asian desserts. My favorite is the one of Ming revolutionaries planning to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China during the Yuan dynasty and spreading word via letters baked into mooncakes. (Julia Child would’ve been so proud!)
During my Singaporean girlhood, I’d known the stories, I’d eaten the cakes. As for making them? That seemed so laughably difficult it never once crossed my mind.
It turns out, however, they’re incredibly easy to make — you just need the right teachers.
In my family, the mooncake-making falls on the sisters and mother of my Aunty Khar Imm, Dad’s sister-in-law. With the list of family members and friends requesting mooncakes getting longer by the year, Aunty Khar Imm and her sisters have a serious production line going in order to churn out these cakes.
For my day-long apprenticeship, I was attached to Aunty Khar Moi, who is a true pro and stickler for detail. (Thankfully for me, she also possesses the infinite amount of patience required to endure the many ugly mooncakes I made before I started to get the hang of it.)
First, you take a bunch of lotus-seed paste. (In Singapore and other Asian countries, this can be pretty widely found in the weeks leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. I presume you can also find them in many Chinatowns worldwide.)
Then, you mix in a bunch of melon seeds for added crunch. (This is optional.)
Next, you form them into little balls, each weighing 25 grams.
You can make these cakes with several kinds of fillings — in Singapore, green tea paste has become popular in recent years.
Once that’s done, you set that aside and move onto the dough.
First, you mix together confectioner’s sugar, a few kinds of flour, Japanese mochi flour, shortening and pandan water.
Many cooks use pandan essence added to water for the “pandan water” bit but, of course, this is something that just will not do for my aunts. Instead, they boil several knots of fresh pandan leaves in water until the liquid starts to smell deliciously grassy and vanilla-like.
When that’s all mixed together, a little food coloring goes in. You want it to be pale green — more seafoam than Incredible Hulk.
Then, you roll out a little circle of dough and place a lotus-seed paste ball in the center…
… and turn it over and stretch out the skin to cover the ball, sealing it at the bottom.
Next, you’ll need a crucial piece of equipment — a mooncake mold.
This makes cakes of two sizes — we prefer making smaller ones that you can devour in about three big bites.
You want to place the dough ball you’ve made into the mold with the sealed side up and smooth it out with the palm of your hand, making sure that the cake fills all four corners of the mold.
After rapping the mold on the counter a few times to loosen the cake … voila! A perfect little mooncake.
Now, some folks like salted duck’s egg yolks in their mooncakes because the salty taste cuts the sweetness of the lotus-seed paste.
To make those, you make a slightly lighter ball of paste, hollow it out …
… and fill it with yolk. (Regular mooncakes — which are about the size of a hockey puck — typically feature one or two yolks. For the small ones, it’s best to use just a quarter of a yolk for each one.)
After filling it with yolk and rolling it back up, you want to weigh it again — the ball should weigh 25 grams total, including the yolk.
And there you have it — a tiny pandan mooncake with crunchy slivers of melon seeds and crumbly bits of salted yolk.
This being my super-chef family, naturally, we didn’t stop there.
That day, we also made a few hundred little deep-fried mooncakes filled with sweet, mashed yam and encased in a spiralled flaky crust that are unique the Teochews, our Chinese ethnic group.
Crunchy outside and lightly sweet on the inside, they’re a pleasure simple and true, especially with a hot cup of Chinese tea.
I considered sharing our Teochew mooncake recipe here — really, I did.
(Yes, I have been told I can be a tease.)
In the meantime, here’s our recipe for pandan-skin mooncakes. Enjoy …
Aunty Khar Moi’s Pandan-skin Mooncakes
240 grams all-purpose flour that has been steamed for 10 minutes, then dried
180 grams “Top Flour,” which is a super-fine flour. Cake flour can be substituted.
200 grams confectioner’s sugar
100 grams mochi flour
400 grams pandan water
120 grams shortening
A few drops of green food coloring
For filling, you’ll need a 1.5 kg bag of lotus-seed paste and salted egg yolks and melon seeds, if using.
Recipe makes 60 small mooncakes
Measure out 60 25 gram balls of lotus-seed paste filling and set aside. Using a standmixer, mix together three kinds of flour and confectioner’s sugar. Then add shortening and gradually mix in pandan water. Mix until the dough is tacky but not sticky. Next, add a few drops of green food coloring and mix well.
Divide dough into balls weighing 250 grams each. Roll out each ball into a flat circle, place a ball of lotus-seed paste in the center, turn it over and stretch out the skin and seal it so the paste is entirely covered.
Place ball of dough and paste into mooncake mold and use your palm to smooth it out. Tap mooncake mold on the table to loosen and remove the mooncake.
Mooncakes should be stored in the refrigerator. If you’re planning on eating them after one week, store them in the freezer.