We rarely ate mooncakes when I was growing up, but the ones we had were always the round Taiwanese mooncakes with pale, very flaky pastry, mung bean filling, and a red design stamped on top. We did not eat the dark golden Cantonese mooncakes with chewy pastry shaped in fluted molds, which are what most people think of when they hear the word "mooncake" -- evidenced by the fact that they are depicted in the mooncake emoji. Pictures of Cantonese mooncakes were flooding my Instagram feed before the Mid-Autumn Festival, with nary a Taiwanese mooncake to be seen.
I had never considered making mooncakes myself until my brother mentioned in the family chat that he was making them this year. He's not even a baker. I figured if he could make them and so many people on the internet were making them, surely I could make them as well. And I decided to make Cantonese mooncakes because there were a lot of recipes to pick from. I tried two different recipes: Maggie Zhu's mooncakes filled with homemade lotus seed paste; and Kristina Cho's honeyed pistachio mooncakes.
I needed a few specialty ingredients for the mooncakes. Golden syrup is something I always have on hand, but I had never used lye water (potassium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate solution) before and I had to track it down at an Asian grocery. The lotus seed paste also required maltose and (obviously) dried lotus seeds; the former was more difficult to find than the latter. Mooncake molds were easy to find on Amazon.
I made the lotus seed paste a few days in advance. I soaked the dried seeds overnight; removed the green shoots from inside the seeds; cooked the seeds in water until soft; drained them; and blended them with boiling water until completely smooth. Then I cooked sugar and oil in a pan until the sugar was golden; added the lotus seed puree and more sugar; cooked the paste until it started to dry out; gradually added more oil; added maltose; and cooked and stirred the paste until it was cohesive. I also added salt. This took quite a bit of time and the process was laborious, but I ended up with a beautifully golden, perfectly smooth paste. I started out with 170 grams of lotus seeds (the size of the package I happened to buy) and ended up with 535 grams of paste. I used a #50 scoop to portion out the filling and got 24 portions that I formed into cylinders. The chilled paste was pliable but held its shape without a problem.
By contrast, making Maggie Zhu's mooncake pastry was easy. You simply stir together golden syrup, lye water, oil, and cake flour. I also added a pinch of salt. You knead the dough a few times; let it rest for 30 minutes; knead the dough a few more times; and let it rest for another 20-30 minutes. I made a triple batch of dough and scooped out small portions that I rolled out with a small nonstick rolling pin and wrapped around cores of lotus seed paste. The pastry was easy to roll out thinly but prone to tearing. Thankfully, it was easy to patch up any holes. I then used a round 50 g mooncake mold to form the mooncakes shape. I misted the cakes lightly with water before putting them in the oven, and halfway through baking I used a fine paintbrush to apply egg yolk wash to the tops of the mooncakes only.
While Zhu's recipe and Cho's recipe are both supposed to produce a similar number of mooncakes (10 and 12, respectively), the amount of dough each yields is vastly different. Zhu's recipe uses only 100 grams of cake flour and has a total weight of 176 grams. Cho's recipe uses 300 grams of all-purpose flour and has a total weight of 570 grams. I had a ton of pastry left over after making Cho's recipe, so I think the proportion of filling to pastry in her recipe is significantly off, unless you want to make mooncakes with super thick pastry.
I went out to Los Angeles to visit my parents a few weeks after the Mid-Autumn Festival, and because my mom said she wanted to try my mooncakes, I made another small batch of each variety to take with me. I improved on them a bit by using more lotus paste filling in each cake, and making sure that the pasty was as thin as possible, especially on the bottom. As you can see in the photo above showing the cross-section of my first batch of mooncakes, the layer of pastry in the lotus paste mooncake was a little thick on the bottom. My mom was a big fan, and she wanted to make a batch of mooncakes with me, so we used Maggie Zhu's recipes to make lotus seed paste mooncakes together.
We had to buy some golden syrup and lye water, but my mom already had lotus seeds and maltose on hand; she even had three sets of mooncake molds she had purchased in Taiwan, even those she's never made mooncakes before. We made a batch using the cake flour and oil my mom had on hand -- King Arthur Flour unbleached cake flour and avocado oil. It was a disaster. The dough was so tough that it was impossible to press into molds. We tossed it and after a trip to the supermarket tried again using Softasilk bleached cake flour and canola oil, and everything went off without a hitch. She was delighted with the results and gave the cakes away to friends. And in the end, that's what mooncakes are really about -- they're meant to be shared.