Mooncakes, or yue bing, are the quintessential food of the Mid-Autumn Festival.
The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, marked by a full moon. This year, it falls on September 13.
In Chinese and other East Asian communities around the world, the holiday is a time for families to gather together, give thanks for the fall harvest and for each other, and feast. Mooncakes are traditionally gifted between families and friends, as their round shape—as well as that of the moon itself—is thought to symbolize reunion and togetherness.
Traditional mooncakes consist of a tender, golden-brown crust encasing a sweet, dense filling. Common fillings include silky white lotus seed paste or sweet red bean paste, sometimes with a salted egg yolk (or two, if you’re lucky) nestled inside.
This time of year, pre-made mooncakes abound in Chinese bakeries and markets, often exquisitely packaged with high-end price tags to match. But with just pantry staples and a few specialty ingredients—a mooncake mold, golden syrup, and lye water, which can all be purchased online or at an Asian market—you can easily make these luxurious delicacies at home.
A word of warning: They’re incredibly rich and sweet. Mooncakes are typically enjoyed with tea, to cut through that richness, and a small wedge of one is usually more than enough to satisfy. Luckily, that makes them perfect for sharing—ideally under the glow of a full moon.
Tips for Mooncake Success
The ratio of filling to dough is usually between 2:1 and 3:1. The mooncake mold I used is for 4.4-ounce mooncakes, so I measure out 2.6 ounces of filling and 1.8 ounces of dough for each mooncake. You can change the proportion as you wish, as long as the total amount fits your mold.
Each ingredient serves a purpose. For instance, golden syrup is one of the main elements that makes the outside of the mooncakes soft, chewy, and shiny. Lye water, meanwhile, gives them their golden color.
The filling needs oil, in order for the skin to become soft and shiny. I used a pre-made sweet red bean paste for the filling, which saved me at least four hours of prep time, but the paste does not have any oil in it, and so I had to add some myself.
To prevent cracking, always keep the dough and the unbaked mooncakes covered with plastic wrap. Spraying the mooncakes with water before they go into the oven also helps.
Do not eat the mooncakes right away. Baked mooncakes need to be stored in an airtight container for two days before serving. After two days, the crusts will become soft, chewy, and shiny, and the color will deepen. In Chinese, we call this process “hui you,” which literally translates to “returning oil.”
Red Bean Mooncakes Recipe
Makes 12 (4.4-ounce) moon cakes
Prep Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
4.4-ounce mooncake mold set (available online or in Chinese supermarkets)
2 large baking trays, lined with parchment paper
Mist spray bottle, filled with water
Small pastry brush
2 wire cooling racks
For the dough:
3/4 cup golden syrup (available online; honey is a great substitute)
6 tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon food-grade lye water (available in Chinese supermarkets)
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
For the filling:
2 1/2 pounds fine sweetened red bean paste (see Note)
1/4 cup peanut oil
For the egg wash:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
To make the dough: In a large mixing bowl, add the golden syrup, peanut oil, and lye water, and mix well. Add the sifted flour and knead until the flour is well incorporated and no streaks remain, about 3 minutes. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 2 hours. (It can rest anywhere from 1 hour to 24 hours, but I find 2 hours to yield the best results.)
To make the filling: In a saucepan over low heat, add the red bean paste and half of the peanut oil, and stir continuously for about 3 minutes. Then pour in the rest of the oil, and stir until thoroughly combined, for about 9 minutes. The paste should feel thick and heavy, with the texture of peanut butter. Transfer the paste to a plate and let it cool for about 1 hour. (You can also transfer it to the fridge to chill.) Once it has cooled, the filling will become firmer and therefore easier to manage.
To assemble the mooncakes: Use a kitchen scale to measure out 2.6 ounces of filling at a time. Form it into a ball with your palms and transfer to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the filling.
Then, use the scale to measure out 1.8 ounces of dough at a time. Form it into a ball with your palms, adding a small amount of flour if the dough is sticky and hard to handle, and transfer to a plate. Cover it with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
Lightly dust a working surface with flour. Take a ball of dough and use your palm to pat it into a disk, about 3 inches in diameter. Place a ball of filling in the center and wrap the dough around it, bringing the edges of the dough up to cover the filling completely. Roll it into a uniform ball.
Dust the ball with flour. Place it into the mold and gently flatten it until it fills the mold. Put the mold on a parchment-lined baking tray, press the stamp down, and slowly lift the mold to release the mooncake onto the tray. Immediately cover with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Repeat with the rest of the dough and the filling, tucking each mooncake under the plastic wrap as you finish shaping it.
Spray the mooncakes with water, cover with plastic wrap, and let them rest for 30 minutes. This will help prevent the mooncakes from cracking.
To bake the mooncakes: Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a small bowl, whisk together 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon of water until combined. Strain the mixture and set aside.
Just before baking, spray the mooncakes with water again. Then transfer the trays of mooncakes to the middle rack of the oven and bake for 5 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes. Lightly brush the egg wash all over the mooncakes. Don’t apply the egg wash while the mooncakes are still hot, or add too much, as you might destroy the patterns from the mold.
Return the mooncakes to the middle rack of the oven, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F, and bake for another 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool for about 30 minutes. Then, transfer the mooncakes to wire racks to cool down completely, another 2 hours.
Store in an airtight container for 2 days before serving.
If you want to make the red bean paste from scratch, first soak 1 1/2 pound of azuki beans in water for 2 hours or up to overnight. Rinse and drain.
Then, in a large pot, add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the beans and cook over low heat for 2 hours, adding 1/2 cup water every 30 minutes, until they become mushy. To thicken, turn the heat to high and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring constantly. At this point, the liquid should have almost dried out. Add 1 cup of sugar and use an immersion blender to blend everything until smooth. Then proceed with the recipe.
Recipe by CiCi Li. Article by Crystal Shi, the food editor of the Epoch Times.