Happy Moon Cake Festival!
It’s one of my favourite times of year: Mid-Autumn Festival, aka, Moon Cake Festival! Following the Chinese Lunar Year calendar (the 15th day of the 8th month), in Ancient times, mid-autumn marked the harvest time, when the weather got cooler, the nights got longer, and fruits and vegetables became ripe and ready for harvesting and feasting. Since the sun was setting earlier, lanterns would be lit and hung outside of shops, and little children would carry them as they ran down the street. And paper lanterns became part of the tradition of Mid-Autumn Festival adding to the joyous atmosphere and intimacy of family gatherings during this time of year.
In Asian cultures, moon cakes do symbolize the moon, and there’s a story behind it that I blogged last year. Not only does the Mid-Autumn Festival mark the time of harvest but on the night of the festival, the moon is at its brightest and fullest. This year, that night is Monday, September 12, 2011.
The origin of moon cakes dates back to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420) and during revolutionary times in the Ming Dynasty in China, secret messages were imprinted onto moon cakes and delivered between spies. Messages would be contained on either one or multiple moon cakes, if it was the latter, the multiple moon cakes would have to be assembled like a puzzle in order to read the message. After the message was read, the moon cakes were eaten, thus, completely destroying the evidence.
Since we have much more sophisticated forms of communication nowadays, moon cakes are just for eating! Traditionally, moon cakes are made of a flaky, buttery crust and filled with lotus seed paste and a whole salted egg yolk. The brilliantly orange and spherical egg yolk symbolizes the bright, full moon on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. I have never been a fan of the egg yolk in moon cakes. When I was little, I used to pick out the yolk with a teaspoon and just eat the sticky and sweet lotus seed paste.
This year, I decided to go full contemporary and only buy snow skin moon cakes. There are so many different varieties of moon cakes nowadays, even Starbucks makes moon cakes! I love the snow skin moon cakes for their fruit fillings and pretty exteriors, although, these rainbow little pastries are not for moon cake purists. More reminiscent of Japanese mochi cakes than traditional Chinese moon cakes, snow skin moon cakes have evolved in Western culture, their fillings can include anything from ice cream to yogurt or jelly. The shape, size and markings on the outside of the moon cakes have been retained from tradition though.
I bought my snow skin moon cakes from Osaka, a Japanese grocery chain owned by T&T and located in Yaohan Centre in Richmond. I’m not sure of the brand name of the moon cakes but there’s a picture of a rabbit on the box. In Chinese folklore, a rabbit lives on the moon, he pounds medicine, and on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the markings on the full moon resemble the shape of a rabbit with big floppy ears.
I bought one large box of fruit filled snow skin moon cakes with eight different flavours. These moon cakes come in full size and mini bite-size. The bite-site moon cakes only had five flavours though. I also bought a small box of Tiramisu flavoured moon cakes from the famous Chinese bakery, Maxim.
The fruit filled snow skin moon cakes were filled with a creamy yogurt filling and real fruit bits. All of them were tasty but I have to say that my clear favourite was pineapple. Each of these moon cakes is stamped with Chinese characters noting their flavour. Their outer ‘snowy’ crusts are made of a sweet and chewy glutinous rice flour. What I loved about the pineapple flavour was that it had all three textures of chewy skin, creamy yogurt filling and crunchy, fresh fruit. It was tropical and refreshing.
My second favourite was the apple. Again, the apple bits like the pineapple were crunchy and juicy. The slight tartness in the apples was also a great contrast to the creamy yogurt, infused with sweet apple juice.
I tasted the blueberry snow skin moon cake in the store and I was sold. It tasted like a blueberry smoothy!
Most large boxes of moon cakes come with a plastic knife inside the box since boxes of moon cakes are usually brought to large family gatherings and served as dessert. The knife is great for cutting up small pieces for sharing so everyone can try a bit of each flavour. I love food that comes with its own utensils, just like the little spoon in Haagan Daz ice cream cups.
I could smell the sweet strawberry moon cake as soon as I opened the package. The crust was speckled with strawberry seeds and the filling tasted like a cold strawberry sundae. The inside of the strawberry moon cake might have been the prettiest in the box, the deep red fruit against the powder pink, creamy yogurt.
The banana moon cake also had some pretty substantial chunks of real banana. Who doesn’t love sweet, frozen bananas?
The mango moon cake contained little bits of dried mango that were delectably sweet.
The cranberry moon cake reminded me of a Cosmopolitan cocktail with fleshy bits of berries.
I have to say that the citron moon cake was my least favourite even though the colour of the filling was the most eye-catching. The filling tasted a little bit like Orange Crush.
No, these snow skin moon cakes weren’t filled with anything that resembled a full moon. Sometimes snow skin moon cakes contain a round chocolate truffle in place of the round egg yolk. The centre of the Maxim tiramisu moon cake contained a cool design made of cream cheese which was stylish and tasty.
I picked the tiramisu moon cake because it seemed so creative and unique. This moon cake is stamped with Maxim’s name in Chinese: “may sum.” It tasted like sweet coffee ice cream. It was delicious and gorgeous to look at.
I love that moon cakes have made their way into contemporary cuisine leaving a trail back to ancient history and folklore for younger generations to discover.