These traditional Chinese mooncakes filled with red bean paste and optional salted yolks are a classic for Mid-Autumn Festival. They are shiny, fragrant, and beautifully golden brown on the outside and embody a well balanced sweet and savory flavor of fall festivities.
Can you believe it?! It's Mid-Autumn Festival already! But what kind of Mid-Autumn Fest would it be if we don't indulge in some mooncakes?
Last year, Kyong and I fell in love with snow skin mooncakes, but this year we decided to share something more traditional and classic: the Cantonese-style mooncakes! These mooncakes are what you'd often see at your local Asian markets around this time of the year, as they make wonderful gifts for families and friends. Not to mention, they are so tasty! But as usual, our complaints rest with how sweet commercial mooncakes are. So here's to those of you who wants to enjoy classic mooncakes that are less sweet or wants to share some beautiful homemade mooncakes with family and friends.
Where do we start when it comes to the origin of mooncakes? Well, even for me, a Chinese decedent, it's a little hard to pinpoint the true origin of why we eat mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some folklores share the tales of Chang'e, who ate some immortality elixirs to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands and became the Goddess of the Moon. So mooncakes would be eaten in honor of the Moon Goddess to celebrate this year's good harvest and pray for an even better one the next year. While other tales talked of how mooncakes were used as a vessel to deliver secret messages in the Yuan dynasty by revolutionaries. Whichever tale made mooncakes a popular celebration food, we can all agreed that mooncakes are enjoyed and gifted as a symbol of completeness and prosperity in harvest for the upcoming year.
Have you ever wondered why mooncakes in general are considerably sweet, rich, and loaded in calories? It's because it's a pastry meant to be shared with friends and family! Usually, you'll also find a knife and prong set inside of mooncake boxes, making it easier for you to divvy up a mooncake for sharing. Oh, and don't forget to brew some hot tea! It's a classic to pair hot tea with mooncakes, and they are a perfect combo!
What are traditional mooncakes?
Technically speaking, there are a variety of mooncakes traditional to each region and province of China or other Asian countries. For example, Su-style mooncakes (苏州月饼) can be either a sweet or savory filling wrapped with a flakey pastry dough. Meanwhile, the recently trending snow skin mooncakes, originating from Singapore, can be filled with a variety of sweet fillings and wrapped in a no-bake, mochi-like dough. And in this recipe and post, we are sharing one of the most popular mooncakes, also known as the Cantonese-style mooncakes (广式月饼). This style of mooncake is what most people think of when referring to traditional or classic mooncakes. It's usually filled with either red bean paste or lotus seed paste and can be stuffed up to four, salted duck egg yolks.
Potassium Carbonate and its alternative
To make these traditional Cantonese-style mooncakes, one very important and a classic ingredient to have is Potassium Carbonate solution, sometimes known as food grade lye water, which essentially is an alkaline solution. You may have even heard of or are familiar with the Cantonese term kansui (枧水)or the Mandarin term jianshui (枧水/碱水). This dietary alkaline solution is added to foods, usually starches and doughs, to help with browning, balancing out acids, and to achieve certain textures. For example, Chinese sticky rice dumplings and hand-pulled noodles are a couple of foods that sometimes use jianshui.
Although potassium carbonate solution can be purchased online, you can usually find it in your local ethnic markets. But we know, sometimes sourcing can be difficult or you just simply don't want to purchase a whole bottle just for one or two recipes. So here is an alternative that you can easily make at home using baking soda!
To make a lye water alternative:
Evenly spread a box of baking soda (12 or 16 ounce) onto a baking tray lined with aluminum foil. Bake the baking soda in the oven with the fan off for about 30 minutes at 350°F. Make sure to smash up large lumps so that the baking soda can be baked evenly. Let the baking soda cool to room temperature in the oven to prevent it from reabsorbing excess moisture from the cooling process. Once the baked baking soda is cool, store it in an airtight container to be used as needed. To make the alkaline solution, mix together 1 part baked baking soda to 4 parts water and use your homemade solution in equal proportion as instructed by the recipe.
The main ingredient: inverted golden syrup
Another very important ingredient used for mooncake making is inverted golden syrup, or simply golden syrup. This syrup is made similarly to making caramel (not to be confused with caramel sauce), which is cooking water and sugar until golden amber, with the exception that an acid, usually lemon juice is added. The lemon juice (acid) inverts the syrup which prevents it from crystalizing and solidifying like regular caramel.
So what's the purpose of using golden syrup in mooncakes? Golden syrup, being that it is a sugar and an inverted syrup, keeps pastries from drying out. It helps mooncakes keep their iconic tenderness and also extends their shelf life by keeping the pastry from becoming stale. Lastly, golden syrup contributes to mooncake's beautiful golden appearance.
If you're making your own homemade golden syrup, sometimes you may find excess bubbles staying on the surface, even after letting it sit for a day. This indicates that your golden syrup is probably a little too thick. To fix it, transfer the golden syrup into a saucepan along with a couple Tablespoons of water. Bring it to boil and mix until everything is well combined. Transfer the syrup to a clean container and let any bubbles dissipate. If the golden syrup still have bubbles, more water is needed.
Homemade mooncake red bean paste
Honestly, mooncake making is pretty easy. The only time consuming part is making the filling. So do feel free to purchase pre-made bean paste. But if you really want to go a step further to make mooncakes, using homemade mooncake red bean paste is definitely rewarding. Not only will the bean paste flavor be customizable to your preference, in general, your mooncake will taste so much better.
To make red bean paste for mooncakes, you'll start off the same as our classic azuki bean paste recipe. However, after the azuki beans have been cooked in the Instant Pot, you'll have to "sauté" the bean paste in some oil, along with the sugar and salt, to make the red bean paste more malleable and a little bit richer. Make sure to cook the bean paste, at the least, until it no longer sticks to the sides of the pan.
Preparing frozen salted duck egg yolk for mooncakes
If you're team mooncakes with salted duck egg yolks, you'll definitely want to embed salted yolks in your mooncakes! There are several different ways to go about acquiring these salted yolks, from curing the duck eggs yourself to the easiest method, using already cooked and salted duck egg yolks from the frozen isle. The only drawback for using frozen yolks is that not all brands are created equal. Some brands procure decent salted yolks while others make salted rubber balls. So you really have to test out each brand to know. The pros are definitely the convenience and the lower cost, compared to purchasing whole duck eggs, whether cured or fresh.
So here are some tips for preparing these frozen salted yolks to be mooncake making ready:
- Soaking the yolks in oil. It's totally option but recommended to soak them in oil at least for 1 hour or overnight to help keep them moist so that during baking, the yolks wont lose their desirable fatty, richness.
- Give the yolks a coating of clear liquor before baking. This process is highly recommended and the purpose is to help get rid of eggy-ness, as duck eggs smell and tastes more eggy than chicken eggs. You can use any clear liquor from Chinese rice wine (米酒) to cheap vodkas. We like to apply the liquor using a spray bottle and give the yolks one to two spray with the fine mist nozzle, but you can definitely brush the yolks if you prefer. Make sure to only apply a thin coat of liquor or the yolk may not bake properly.
- Bake until the yolks are foamy. Typically, salted egg yolks take about 5 to 10 minutes to bake, but a good indication that they're done is when the yolks starts to foam. This conveys that the fat inside the yolks are releasing, making the yolk tastier and richer. Also, you can see that the yolks will have lighten up a couple shades and become a golden yellow and opaque rather than the original vibrant orange.
- Let the yolks cool completely before using. Even though mooncakes have to be baked after shaping, it is still crucial to use all of the fillings at room temperature. This will prevent excess moisture from building, due to the temperature difference, which could cause the fillings to separate or the mooncakes to crack and bulge.
Labors of love: mooncake making
From preparing all of the components for mooncakes to shaping mooncakes, they are all labors of love. But, I'd say that mooncake shaping is definitely the hardest part of this entire process because to become good at it, practice is a must. So for the beginners and first-time mooncake makers, don't be discouraged! Practice makes perfect, and in the meantime, those imperfect mooncakes are still just as tasty and make great snacks.
Below are step-by-step photos of the mooncake shaping process to give you a visual along with instructions:
Patience is the key to enjoy mooncakes
We know it is incredibly hard and takes some serious self control to not gobble up fresh pastries the moment we can handle the heat, but trust us on this one. You'll want to enjoy your mooncake at least 2 days after they're baked. Why?
During the 2 days of maturation, the pastry softens up from the filling's moisture and oil, which creates their iconic tenderness. If you were to taste the mooncake after it's cooled from the oven, the pastry on the outside will be crumbly and dry. The second difference after the maturation is that the pastry will appear much shinier, saturated in color, and just more appealing, color-wise. This process is called huiyou (回油), meaning the "return of oil".
So make sure to give your homemade mooncakes a couple of days to mature in an airtight container after they have cooled completely. Personally, we like to keep it out at room temperature for at least one day or until the maturation process is finished. Then, you can store the mooncakes, in airtight containers, in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Over the years of testing and experimenting with making mooncakes, here are some troubleshooting tips we've collected:
- Golden syrup discrepancy. Wether you're using homemade golden syrup or store bought ones, the moisture content may vary. Since golden syrup is also a large component of the dough, we suggest reserving 5% of the flour called for in the recipe to accommodate the dough, if your golden syrup is on the dryer side. Of course, if the golden syrup is on the wetter side, you can add a little bit more flour.
- Sometimes, the weather can also affect your mooncake dough. When it's really warm or humid, we usually have to add a couple extra teaspoon of flour to get the dough to the right consistency.
- Large amount of filling to small amount of dough. When we first started making these Cantonese-style mooncakes, it was a struggle trying to contain 35 grams of filling in only 15 grams of mooncake dough. So for beginners and first-time mooncake makers, feel free to adjust the filling and dough ratio. I highly recommend trying 30 grams filling and 20 gram dough.
- Half the salted yolks. When making 50 gram mooncakes, sometimes the salted duck yolks are just too big to fit properly. You can cut the salted yolk in half after it's cooled after baking. If you prefer more bean paste rather than just salted yolks, you can do this too.
- Dust the mooncake mold. Usually, we never have issue with only dusting the mooncake before pressing them. But sometimes, especially when the whether is humid or hot, we have to dust flour on both the mooncakes and the inside of the molds.
- Filling must be dry. Compared to red bean paste made for other desserts, red bean paste for mooncakes have to be much dryer. When "sautéing" the bean paste, cook it, at the least, until the paste stops sticking to the sides of the pan.
- Brushing the mooncakes with egg wash. We do think brushing egg wash on the tops of the mooncakes is a must, because it gives mooncakes a beautiful golden shine. However, brushing the sides of the mooncakes are totally optional. In our experience, egg wash always give our mooncakes undesirable streaks and cracks on the sides. Whether or not you decide to egg wash the sides of the mooncakes, make sure to use a good pastry brush that does not have silicon bristles. Those don't hold egg wash as well and leaves really thick streaks on delicate pastries.
- Use lye water for deeper mooncake color. After baking for a total of 20 minute and your mooncake is still pale, check your oven temperature to make sure it's accurate. If the oven temperature is not the issue, you can add another teaspoon of lye water to help your mooncake achieve a darker color.
If you're looking for other Asian festival eats, you make like these:
- Snow skin mooncakes with custard filling
- Rose shaped dumplings
- The BEST Chinese pork dumplings
- Chinese whole steamed fish with ginger and scallion
Bake with love!
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Traditional Chinese Mooncakes with Red Bean Paste
For the mooncake dough:
- 60 milliliter golden syrup (or a skimp ¼ cup or 80g)
- 37 milliliter oil (or 2½ tablespoon or 30g)
- 1 teaspoon potassium carbonate solution , also known as lye water (or 5g)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour , spooned & leveled (about 120g plus more for dusting)
- Pinch of salt (preferably fine salt)
- Water , for spraying
- 1 large egg yolk , mixed with 1 tablespoon of water for egg wash
For the homemade red bean filling (if making):
For the salted duck egg yolk (optional):
- 1 pack frozen cooked salted duck egg yolk , thawed
- Oil (any neutral oil for soaking)
- Clear liquor (ie vodka, white rice wine, regular soju)
For the inverted golden syrup (if making):
- In a saucepan, add the granulated sugar and gently pour the ½ cup of water and lemon juice over the sugar. Place the saucepan over medium high heat and bring the sugar syrup to a boil. Reduce the heat to a medium and let the syrup simmer until light amber, about 10 minutes or until it reaches 260°F. Turn off the heat. Stir together the ¼ cup of water and baking soda and carefully add it to the inverted sugar syrup. Stir the syrup until everything is well combined. Transfer to a clean container and let cool.*It is highly recommended that this inverted syrup is made at least 1 night ahead of time. The bubbles created from the baking soda solution will dissipate by the second day. If not, please refer to post for more detail and troubleshoot!*
For the homemade red bean paste (if making):
- Place the dry azuki beans into a bowl. Discard any undesirable beans (broken, black, etc.) and wash the beans by giving them a couple of rinses. Drain and transfer the beans into the Instant Pot insert along with the water. Replace the lid and secure the vent to "SEALING." Select the pressure cooking setting and adjust the time to 25 minutes, high pressure, and normal doneness. Carefully release the pressure manually once the setting expires.
- Strain the azuki beans and save some of the bean liquid. Transfer the beans into a high power food process and blend until smooth. Add a small amount of the bean liquid as needed to help processing.
- In a nonstick pan over medium low heat, add the oil and the azuki bean paste. Cook the bean paste for a few minutes, then add the sugar and salt and stir until combined. Continue to cook on medium low heat for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the bean paste no longer sticks to the sides of the pan and becomes a cohesive mass. If you prefer a drier bean paste filling, cook the red bean paste for a few additional minutes. Transfer the bean paste to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it completely cool at room temperature before using or storing.*Make sure to stir and fold the bean paste often to prevent sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan!*
For the salted duck egg yolk (if using):
- *This method is for frozen salted duck egg yolks.*Preheat the oven to 350°F and prepare a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil.Separate the yolks and place them in a bowl and add just enough oil to cover them. Let the yolks sit in the oil for at least 1 hour or up to 10 hours. Remove the yolks from the oil and arrange them on the sheet pan. Lightly spray or brush the egg yolks with the clear liquor and bake the salted egg yolks for 5 to 10 minutes or until the yolks starts foaming. Remove from the oven and let the eggs cool completely at room temperature before using.
For the mooncake dough:
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the inverted golden syrup, oil, lye water, and salt. Stir until well mixed. Add the flour and mix until a dough starts to form, then knead the dough with your finger until the dough is cohesive. Cover and let it rest while preparing the fillings.
For the assembly:
- For plain red bean paste filling:Portion the red bean paste into 35 gram balls and set aside.For red bean paste filling with salted duck egg yolk:Pair each egg yolk with an amount of red bean paste to equal 35 grams. Round the red bean paste, then make an indentation large enough to fit a salted egg yolk. Place the egg yolk in the bean paste and mold the bean paste around the yolk. Round out the bean paste and set it aside until needed.*Since this recipe is made for 50 gram molds, a whole salted duck egg may be too big for a single mooncake. Feel free to cut the salted duck egg in half after baking it.*
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and prepare a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
- With gloved hands, portion the mooncake dough into 15 gram balls. Working with one ball of dough at a time, flatten the dough ball in your palm into a 2½ to 3 inch circle. Keeping the dough in your palm, place a ball of the red bean filling in the center of the dough. Invert the dough with the filling and let the dough drape over the filling. Slowly mold and wrap the dough around the filling. Once the dough is mostly wrapped around the filling, flip the filling around and slowly start to seal the dough.*Refer to the post above for more detailed explanation along with photo reference of this process.*
- When the entire filling is sealed by the dough, roll it in your palm to slightly smooth out the mooncake. Dust the mooncake with flour but dust off the excess. Gently mold the mooncake into an oblong shape and place it on the prepared sheet pan. Carefully fit the mooncake mold press over the oblong mooncake and press firmly. Release the lever then push the level while raising the mold to release the mooncake. Repeat with remaining filling and dough and keep the mooncakes at least ½ inch apart.*Also dust the inside of the mooncake molds if needed.*
- Once all of the mooncakes are shaped, lightly spray the mooncakes with 1-2 spritz of water, and bake the mooncakes at 400°F for 5 minutes. Remove the mooncakes from the oven and lower the oven to 325°F. Lightly brush the tops of the mooncakes with a thin layer of egg wash and return it to the oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until the mooncake is your desired golden brown.*If you wish, you could brush the tops of the mooncakes a second time, after returning the mooncakes to the oven for 5 minutes at 325°F. Then continue baking the mooncakes for another 5 to 10 minutes until golden brown.*
- Remove the mooncakes from the oven and let them cool completely at room temperature. Mooncakes taste their best after maturing for at least 2 day at room temperature. Store them in airtight containers in the fridge, up to 2 weeks.
- Mooncakes are very easy to make pastries, but they are definitely a bit more technical and are labors of love. So make sure to check out the post above for all of the troubleshoots and tips we've acquired over the years of experimenting and testing. Of course if you have any questions that we were not able to answer in the post, drop it in the comment and we'll try our best to answer it!
- Our mooncake ratio of dough to filling is kind of advance, but classic compared to tradition mooncakes. So for beginners, first time mooncake makers, or even those of you who enjoy a little more dough to filling, feel free to increase the mooncake dough to 20 grams and decrease the total filling weight to 30 grams.
- Lastly, we made our mooncakes completely from scratch, minus the salted duck egg yolks. But feel free to purchase the components such as the red bean paste and inverted golden syrup at your local Asian market or online.