Small Batch

How to Make Traditional Cantonese Mooncakes at Home

By • September 5, 2014 • 19 Comments

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It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.

Today: Cynthia of Two Red Bowls is bringing traditional Cantonese mooncakes stateside, right in time for the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival.

For those who celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, there’s a lot to love. The celebration is something like a Chinese Thanksgiving -- a time for family, celebration, and good food. It’s also the time when we eat one of the treats I love best in all the world: mooncakes. They get their name from the full moon that marks the date of the festival, and they’re about as rich and decadent as Chinese desserts get. A supple, golden-brown crust hides impossibly smooth, dense fillings like white lotus paste or chocolatey red bean, and my favorite varieties have a salty, savory duck yolk (or two, or more!) nestled in the center. They’re so indulgent that my family used to cut just one into eight tiny slivers and share them between the four of us, but in my metabolic heyday, I could have put away several of these calorie bombs in one sitting.

In Hong Kong and mainland China, mooncakes are everywhere this time of year. Stateside, they’re a little less plentiful, so this year I decided to try my hand at making my own. As it turns out, learning how to make these gems was surprisingly easy, a ton of fun, and immensely rewarding.

You do need a few specialty items, like the mold, but an Asian market or Amazon can always help. After that, the process is straightforward, and the reward is a homemade mooncake that is incomparably lighter and kinder on your stomach, but still just as (if not more) delicious as the store-bought versions. The homemade paste in particular is a dream; lotus paste can be sickly sweet and chemical-tasting if it’s not made well, but when it’s homemade, it’s worlds away from those cloying versions -- fragrant, delicate, and floral.

Many store-bought fillings incorporate lard for a richer mouthfeel, but most homemade recipes I found call for regular vegetable oil instead. As a result, many of the people who followed these recipes noted problems with overly-soft fillings, so I sought to avoid that by using another fat that, like lard, is solid at room temperature. I opted for coconut oil, which lent the fillings a nice, nuanced coconut undertone -- but feel free to use lard if you can find a good quality version and you’re comfortable with it. Otherwise, vegetable shortening may be another substitute, or you can just try regular oil as long as you're prepared for softer filling. 

Finally, the recipe here is designed for miniature mooncakes, which are about 50 to 60 grams in size. For traditional-sized mooncakes, you may need to play around with the sizes of the fillings and the wrapper doughs to get the right shape.

White Lotus Paste

Makes 2 cups

1 cup dried lotus seeds, or two 12-ounce cans cooked lotus seeds in water
2/3 to 3/4 cup sugar (to taste)
Pinch salt (optional)
6 tablespoons coconut oil

Traditional Cantonese Mooncakes

Makes 12 to 14 miniature mooncakes

1/4 cup golden syrup (like Lyle's)
1/2 teaspoon alkaline water (also called kansui, or potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate solution)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour (alternatively, omit cake flour and use 1 cup of all-purpose flour)
2 cups of lotus paste (you can also use red bean paste)
1 miniature (50 gram) mooncake mold


First, make the mooncake filling. If you’re using dried lotus seeds, soak them in plenty of water for at least 6 to 8 hours, or overnight. The seeds should soften and plump up considerably. The next morning or when you’re ready to use, rinse the seeds, then split them in half and remove the green sprout in the center (the sprouts are bitter, and will affect the taste if they’re left in). 

Place the seeds in a pot with plenty of water and bring it to a simmer over medium-low heat. Let the seeds cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until they are soft enough that you can mash them with a fork. Drain the cooked seeds, then place them in a food processor with the sugar and blend until smooth. (If you're using canned lotus seeds, skip straight to this step.) You may need to add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water in this step to achieve a smooth texture. 

Next, pour the purée into a medium saucepan or skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, until much of the water has been cooked away and the purée has thickened to a consistency similar to hummus. At this point, if the purée isn’t as smooth as you like, you can blend it again.

When your purée is the consistency of your liking, add the fat of your choice. Most any fat that is solid at room temperature (excluding butter) should work for this. I used coconut oil because I thought it would be fun to add a touch of coconut flavor to the filling, but lard is most traditional here, and shortening would work as well. Stir the mixture until the fat is fully incorporated, then continue to cook over medium heat until the purée becomes glossy and forms a dough that sticks to the spoon in one mass, about 4 to 5 minutes. The consistency should be similar to soft cookie dough at this point. Remove from heat and chill until ready to use.

Now it's time to get started on the dough. In a large bowl, whisk together the golden syrup, alkaline water, and vegetable oil until blended. (The mixture will likely not fully combine, but do the best you can to emulsify it.) Next, add in the two flours and use a wooden spoon to stir until it forms a pebbly dough.

  

Gather the mixture together and gently knead it just until it comes together into one mass -- take care not to knead vigorously. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 45 minutes to an hour.

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Divide the filling into 12 equal pieces and shape each of them into a ball. Each ball of filling should be about 2 tablespoons to 2 1/2 tablespoons -- roughly the size of a golf ball. If you have a kitchen scale, each ball should weigh about 33 to 34 grams.

For each mooncake, scoop about a tablespoon of dough and roll it out between two pieces of parchment so that it’s about 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter. 

  

For this next step, you may want to flour your hands lightly, though I didn’t and it was generally fine. Place a ball of filling in the center and fold up the dough around the ball. It likely will not cover the whole ball at once, nor should it. Gently push, press, and squeeze the dough, holding the ball securely in your palm, until the dough gradually covers the filling ball. The firmer your filling, the easier this will be. If it really won’t squeeze over the filling, don’t worry -- just pinch off another small piece of dough, roll it out, and use it to patch the ball. I did this a few times and the results were just as good. 

  

To make things even easier, you can even just roll out two small balls of dough (about a teaspoon each) and fold one around each end of the filling so that you cover all of the lotus paste without needing to stretch or squeeze.

  

Place the mooncake ball into your mold and turn it upright on your surface. Press the plunger down until you feel resistance. Lift the mooncake mold off the table and use the plunger to push the mooncake out. Place on a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet while you make the rest of the cakes. If it’s a hot day, you may want to place these in the fridge to keep their form while you finish folding.

When you’re finished forming the mooncakes, bake them at 350° F for 8 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk an egg with a splash of water until smooth. 

Remove the mooncakes from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. Brush on the egg wash, then bake the cakes for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown on top and fragrant. 

  

Let cool completely. Store the mooncakes in an airtight container for 2 days to “release oil” -- the mooncake skins will become shiny, soft, and supple, and it’s at this point that they’re meant to be enjoyed. (But I won’t tell if you sneak one fresh.) Gift them to friends, or enjoy!

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Cynthia of Two Red Bowls 

Jump to Comments (19)

Tags: how-to & DIY, small batch, homemade, from scratch, mooncakes, chinese, cantonese, red bean, lotus paste, lotus, cakes, dessert, asian

Comments (19)

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Stringio

24 days ago Maria Wien

I love this recipe :-) thank you so much. What can I do against mooncakes losing its shape after first baking in oven?

Tworedbowls2

23 days ago cynthia | two red bowls

Hi Maria! Without knowing too much about what happened, my first guess is that the mooncake fillings may have been too soft or had too much moisture. The longer you cook the filling on the stovetop, the firmer and drier it will be. That should help it maintain its shape as it bakes. Let me know if that works for you -- and thank you so much for your nice words!!! I'm so glad you enjoyed it! :)

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about 1 month ago Tulasi-Priya

Beautiful mooncakes! Any reason why I couldn't use ghee instead of coconut oil? It's more-or-less solid at room temp and there's nothing in it to go rancid.

Tworedbowls2

about 1 month ago cynthia | two red bowls

That's an awesome idea! I think you could totally make this with ghee (and I bet it would be delicious!) I'd love to hear how it goes if you try it!

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2 months ago Jay Chen

I will really love to try this recipe but I can't get my hands on the golden syrup. Any substitutes??

Tworedbowls2

about 1 month ago cynthia | two red bowls

Hi Jay, so sorry for the delayed response! I can't say for sure because I haven't tried any substitutes, but I think corn syrup or honey might work, with a teaspoon or two of molasses for flavor. There's actually a Food52 hotline question about it, too: https://food52.com/hotline... Either way, note that the taste will be a little different, since golden syrup has a distinct flavor. I hope that helps! I'd love to hear how a substitute works for you if you try it!

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3 months ago The Cooking of Joy

I tried making Taiwanese taro swirled mooncakes this year: http://the-cooking-of-joy...

It was a lot messier than your beautiful pictures, haha. How do you take the pictures when you have both hands in the shot? Auto timer? Or are those someone else's hands?

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3 months ago Sugartoast

I am totally making these.

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3 months ago Sophia Henkel

So no instructions on how to make salted yolk ones, revived thigh she says they are her favorite? Farm they are mine as well. Guess I will just have to go into San Francisco China town and get then from the bakery.

Tworedbowls2

3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

Hi Sophia! Nope, unfortunately I couldn't get my hands on any duck yolks this time around. But I've seen some recipes through a quick Google that do explain how, so maybe you could give those a shot if you have duck yolks on hand! At any rate, I love SF Chinatown -- hope you get to enjoy your fav mooncakes one way or the other! :)

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3 months ago Sophia Henkel

Thanks for the info. I will look up the tutorials. We can get salted duck eggs from our farmers markets here, so I will try with them.

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3 months ago jrfull

Curious - why alkaline water?

Tworedbowls2

3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

Hi! I haven't tried the dough without the alkaline water, but from my research, it looks like it's designed to add a bit more flexibility to the dough and make it more supple to work with. It also aids in browning during baking. But if you can't get your hands on it, I don't think (fingers crossed!) it will make a huge difference, and I've seen some recipes that omit it.

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3 months ago jrfull

Ah, ok - thanks! I'll take my chances and see how it goes.

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3 months ago Bill Shamam

Next do a recipe for the Pineapple-filled version, please!

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3 months ago molly yeh

totally obsessed.

Stringio

3 months ago Matilda Luk

Whoa. This post just about blew my mind--I thought mooncakes were a store bought thing only! Now, if only I could borrow a Cantonese Po-po to make some for me...

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3 months ago Panfusine

These look spectacular, any pointers on where one could buy the shaping press/molds please?

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3 months ago Sarah Jampel

Sarah is Food52's assistant editor.

Cynthia writes that they're available at Asian markets and on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/gp...)