Mid-autumn Festival and Mooncakes
The annual mid-autumn festival is upon us again, this year on 4 October 2017. In Chinese culture, it is believed that on the 15th day of the eight month of the lunar calendar, the moon is at its fullest and brightest for the year. On this day since 2000 years ago, the ancient Chinese would do lunar worship and eat mooncakes to give thanks for the autumn harvest. Mid-autumn festival also centres on the theme of family reunion. The round shape of mooncakes symbolises reunion, completeness and togetherness during the full moon. Another legend has it that during the Yuan dynasty, mooncakes were used as a vehicle of rebellion against the Mongols by hiding slips of paper containing instructions for revolt inside the cake. After breaking the mooncakes and reading the message, the people were able to mount a successful clandestine revolt that resulted in the overthrow of the reigning Mongol government and establishment of the subsequent Ming dynasty. To commemorate this event, people started the custom of eating mooncakes every mid-autumn festival.
Types of Mooncakes
Mooncakes are typically baked and consist of a thin tender skin enveloping a sweet or savoury filling. Across China, the mooncake skin and filling vary according to different regional styles, such as the flaky pastry mooncake of Suzhou and doughy baked mooncake of Guangzhou. Fillings encompass lotus seed paste, red bean paste, jujube paste and five kernel (五仁). The latter is Cantonese style, consisting of coarsely chopped five types of nuts and seeds (walnuts (核桃), olive kernels(榄仁), sunflower seeds (葵花), sesame seeds (芝麻) and almonds (杏仁)) with candied winter melon or dried tangerine peel as additional flavourings. In this way, five kernel filling is unique amongst the others for its crunchy texture compared to the smooth pastes of the others. In case you are wondering why five types of nuts and seeds, “Five kernels” or “五仁” in Chinese is a pun – a play on words of the five moral standards of traditional Chinese teachings: benevolence (仁), righteousness (义), courtesy (礼), wisdom (智) and trust (信).
Chinese Five Spice
Chinese five-spice powder is based on the concepts of balance that is evident throughout Chinese culture such as the yin-yang dualistic concept and five-elements theory. Typically consisting of star anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, Sichuan peppercorns and cloves, this “wonder mix” is said to bring balance to the dish through the five principal tastes of sweet, sour, pungent, bitter and salty. Being a balanced seasoning, Chinese five spice can be pulled in both the sweet and savoury direction. In these mooncakes, it adds sweetness and warmth from the cinnamon and star anise, yet a cooling and lingering tingling sensation from fennel and Szechuan pepper respectively.
- 256 g (1 cup) raw smooth cashew butter (I use Artisana - see Notes 1)
- 64 g (1/4 cup) pure maple syrup
- 28 g (1/4 cup) coconut flour or finely ground desiccated coconut
- 35 g (1/4 cup) activated almonds, coarsely chopped
- 35 g (1/4 cup) activated pumpkin seeds, coarsely chopped
- 35 g (1/4 cup) activated sunflower seeds
- 35 g (1/4 cup) white and/or black sesame seeds, lightly toasted in a skillet (see Notes 2)
- 25 g (1/4 cup) activated walnuts, coarsely chopped
- 250 g (1 1/4 cups) dried figs, rehydrated
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar or vin cotto
- 1 tbsp Chinese five spice powder (store-bought or see recipe below)
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1½ tbsp ground star anise (from about 12-15 whole star anise)
- 1 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 tbsp ground fennel (from 1½ tbsp whole fennel seeds)
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 3/4 tsp ground cloves
- In a food processor, place all the ingredients for the skin and blend until well combined. The final texture should be smooth and tacky, but dry enought that it does not stick to your hand when molded. If the mixture is too moist, add in coconut flour a little at a time.
- Divide and the dough into 4 balls, about 60 g per ball (see Notes 3). Using a rolling pin and on parchment paper, roll the dough out into circles of 12 cm (4.5 in) diameter.
- Coarsely chop the nuts and seeds and place them in a large bowl.
- Place the dried figs in a bowl with enough warm water to cover them. Allow them to soak until they soften, about 15 minutes.
- Once softened, in a food processor, blend the soaked figs with balsamic vinegar, Chinese five spice powder and salt until a paste forms.
- Fold in the coarsely chopped nuts and seeds into the fig paste.
- Divide and roll the filling mixture into 4 balls, about 80 g per ball (see Notes 3). Place the balls in the freezer for 15 minutes to harden. This makes it easier to mold the mooncakes later on.
- Place the ball of filling into the centre of the skin and gently gather the edges around the base of the ball.
- Roll the ball between the palms of your hand to smoothen the surface.
- Press the ball into a mooncake mold. Turn it upside down and give it a few whacks against the surface of your work table until the moocake falls out.
- If you like a baked look, dust the mooncakes with cacao powder. Store in an airtight container and keep refrigerated for up to one week.
- 1. Smooth cashew butter is absolutely necessary for a tender skin. I've tried using finely ground nuts for the skin, but it came out crumbly.
- 2. I love the nuttiness toasted sesame brings to the mooncakes. You can use raw/untoasted sesame if preferred, if you want to keep it fully raw.
- 3. I am using a large size (8 cm diameter) mooncake mold. For other size of molds, adjust the weight of the filling and skin to fit your mold.