Each September, Chinese families gather to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. The festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which is when the moon is at its fullest and brightest. The moon's roundness symbolizes harmony and prosperity, and the festival celebrates the harvest, often bringing together family members from near and far.
Although ways of celebrating differ throughout China, mooncakes have a starring role no matter the region. In Yunnan province, mooncakes are traditionally filled with the region's famed dried ham, while mooncakes in Hunan province feature roses and osmanthus. Today, contemporary versions of mooncakes with custard, ice cream, or fruit fillings are common around China. Each year, I look forward to snow-skin mooncakes, which are similar to mochi with their chewy exterior made from a sweet rice flour dough. They're often filled with ice cream-in flavors like chocolate, durian, and green tea-and while they aren't classically Chinese, they are very delicious.
When I was growing up in Hong Kong, my family ate Cantonese mooncakes, which are traditionally made with a lard-based pastry dough and filled with a luxurious lotus seed paste reminiscent of a honey caramel. Nestled in the center is a bright, round salted egg yolk that is as radiant as the moon. The cakes are set in an elaborate mold (sometimes shaped like a chrysanthemum), with characters that represent health and prosperity. My parents would buy mooncakes as soon as they were available and bring them to my grandparents' home, where our large family would gather for dinner every Sunday and for every celebration.
We'd enjoy a simple but perfectly cooked meal by my grandma: comforting and deeply flavored double-boiled chicken soup, steamed pork cake with salted fish, and a whole poached chicken served with ginger and scallion sauce. After dinner, she'd serve an assortment of fruit and mooncakes. Although some people dislike the richness and saltiness of the yolks, my cousins would battle each other for the piece with the largest yolk. After, we'd head outside with lit lanterns to admire the full moon and look for Chang'e, the Moon Goddess who is rumored to live on the moon. (Chang'e is so iconic within Chinese culture that the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program is nicknamed the Chang'e Project.)
Today, I live in New York City, a whopping 16-hour flight away from my family in Hong Kong. Although I'm used to celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival without them, this year is especially hard: Because of the pandemic, I haven't seen my family in almost two years. To alleviate some of my homesickness, I've taken to purchasing boxes of pastries from Hong Kong-style bakeries in Manhattan's Chinatown. Despite being an avid baker, I've never been able to replicate the pastries from my childhood-which is why I was so excited to see food blogger Kristina Cho's new book Mooncakes and Milk Bread: Sweet & Savory Recipes Inspired by Chinese Bakeries.
Cho understands the deep nostalgia and longing Chinese Americans have for Chinese bakery treats, like classic egg tarts and fluffy Malay cake. She writes, "I discovered that the recipes that resonated most with my readers were the ones that connected them to a flavor from their childhood… These recipes are hard to come by, and if anything exists, it's via a few untrustworthy web links. I wanted to change that and share a collection of thoughtful, well-tested recipes dedicated to my beloved Chinese bakeries and cafes."
Among these recipes is a guide to mooncakes, in which she explores and shares different methods for making these delights at home. Wanting to develop an easy mooncake recipe that didn't require a special trip to an Asian supermarket, Cho consulted her mother. Together, they came up with a mooncake inspired by a traditional mixed nut and ham filling: Encased in a soft, chewy crust is a combination of coarsely ground pistachios, fragrant honey, and a generous sprinkling of salt. These may not be the traditional mooncakes of my childhood, but they're perfect for creating new traditions of my own as I look up to the moon-the same moon my family is gazing at, 16 hours away.