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DIGEST | Behind the Scenes: Taiwanese Mooncakes

Tell us: has there ever been a better name for a pastry than mooncake?

Pain au chocolat rolls off the tongue, strudel is fun to say, kouign-amann is fun to try to say. Sfogliatelle, of course–Italian always sounds nice. But there’s something about the mooncake. You can argue, and you’d be wrong–but that’s all besides the point. There’s a lot more to this pastry than its name.

What’s a mooncake?

Let’s start with the basics. The mooncake is a round pastry with a thin crust and a filling thick enough to stay put when cut into wedges. Think red bean paste, lotus seed paste, and mung bean paste–all delicious, and all very popular choices.

These days, there’s a mooncake for every taste. With fillings that range from purple yam to green tea to durian, if you can make it into a paste, custard, or jam, it exists in mooncake form. Jelly crust with potato filling? Believe it.

If, after emerging from the black hole of your mooncake Google search back into the real world, you still want to learn more, Elena has you covered with a bit of her own mooncake memories below. And no need to worry: we know all the mooncakes you just ordered are research, not poor impulse control.

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The History

Traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which celebrates the full moon and the fall harvest, the snack has become so intertwined with the holiday that it’s sometimes called the mooncake festival.

As a child, my family and I would line up at Leechi, a small bakery in Taipei, to pick up all our boxes of mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival. I used to smuggle a few boxes back to school in the US in my suitcase and store them in the freezer to make them last a full semester.

But there’s no need to fret: if you have a local Chinese bakery, the mooncake is still a staple bakery product all year round.

Cantonese & Taiwanese Styles

Some people may see our mooncakes and immediately argue that they’re not, in fact, mooncakes. They are, of course. What these people are really getting at (unless they’re a certain type of New Yorker, in which case they only speak in argument) is a matter of regional style.

As with so many foods eaten across a wide geographical area, every region has a take. Consider the dumpling: is it a dumpling, or is it gyoza, pierogi, momo, empanada, samosa, ravioli? You see the point. (If not, please see: flatbread, Greek vs. Turkish coffee, where flat whites really originated.)

The wider world that doesn’t eat mooncakes annually is much more familiar with the Cantonese style. With a strong, chewy crust and dense filling, this style is usually shaped like a hockey puck and imprinted with Chinese characters, moon scenes, or other decorations.

Taiwanese style mooncakes, on the other hand, have a pale, flaky crust and a perfectly spherical shape. Without the imprinted top, it’s easy to tell the two apart. Mung bean paste, taro paste, and spiced braised pork are particularly popular fillings in Taiwan.

Our Mooncake

As you may know, we began tinkering with a recipe for mooncakes after we reopened the tearoom for takeaway in 2020. We had been looking for a snack that was easy to carry, and a bit more traditional.

When we decided it would be a mooncake, Fred and I jumped into the research rabbit hole. Youtube videos, onlines research, Chinese pastry cookbooks shipped from Taiwan–we were all in.

My family’s favorite mooncakes were filled with sweetened mung bean paste, which is how we decided on the filling for our own. Sadly for Fred, making the filling is a seven-step process–who knew?

Shelled mung beans are cleaned, soaked, rinsed, steamed, sifted, boiled, and finally stir fried. This is all before the bean paste is rolled into a long bar and portioned with a scale. If you think seven steps are six too many, get ready for the outer dough.

The flaky outer shell is one of the most distinctive character of a Taiwanese mooncake. It tastes like a soft and supple version of a filo dough. Think of it as a Chinese puff pastry, a layer of water dough and a layer of oil dough. We make each separately before they are portioned and rolled together like a croissant. Then each is flatten into one dough ready for wrapping. Perhaps one day, we will have our kitchen demonstrate the step-by-step in a video. Words can only do so much.

The red stamp on top is the finishing touch. Traditionally it marks the flavor of the mooncake fillings. But in this case, besides adding a bit of tasteful drama to the treat, the stamp is actually my family last name–a nod to the inspiration for the filling.

There’s no need to worry about these running out any time soon, either. We’ll be making mooncakes all year round, with shipping options around the corner. (You know, once we figure out how to take them through the logistical challenge of mail...).

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