On the 15 th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival is observed. Mooncakes are savoured and lanterns displayed to remember the ancient practice of celebrating the harvest that dates back to the Shang Dynasty.
Adding romance to the occasion are stories associated with the festivity. From the mythical moon goddess, Chang’e, to messages hidden in pastries that helped the Chinese win a war, the clarity of the festival’s origins has waned over the centuries.
One thing, however, has stood the test of time - the mooncakes themselves. They have not only grown in popularity, they have multiplied in variety, too. We go on a mooncake safari to find out what new flavours are available this season, how they came about, and how they can be best appreciated.
What Makes a Good Mooncake?
Traditional mooncakes have a thin, soft skin baked to a delicious brown and are filled with sweet lotus paste with one or more salted egg yolks to symbolise the moon. A good mooncake is glossy and evenly browned on the outside, a mark that it has been recently baked and has yet not dried out. The filling is smooth and moist while the duck’s egg yolk within a shiny golden orb, a sure sign of its freshness and quality.
Two other things might be considered as well: the number of yolks and their placement. Traditionalists prefer more yolks in their mooncake to balance the sweet filling. The health conscious balk at the cholesterol count. Whether plenty or few, a well-placed yolk is often appreciated. This means that when the mooncake is cut into eighths, as is often the practice, each portion will have a little yolk in it.
Go Healthy with These Variations
The snow skin mooncake is a later variation of the baked mooncake. Developed by a bakery in Hong Kong, they were an attempt to create a heathier version of the traditional mooncake that is usually rich in sugar and oil. Because the snow skin varieties are made without baking, high temperatures cannot be used to kill any bacteria. So, they are kept refrigerated to extend their shelf life.
Snow skin mooncakes of today boast myriad flavours of skins and filling. It is debatable whether they are still healthier than baked mooncakes, but they certainly impress with their variety.
Savour Mooncakes in Different Ways
Although the primary activity of the Mooncake Festival is families eating mooncakes while admiring the full moon, the different people groups in China have personalised the custom with unique touches of their own. In Fucheng County, the local women cross the Nanpu Bridge during the festival to pray for long life. Jiannin County hangs up lanterns to ask for blessings of children. In Long Yan County, parents dig a small hole in the middle of their mooncakes to signify that some secrets are not meant to be revealed to children.
In Singapore, instead of customs, we localise the festival by putting our own spin to the mooncake, yielding some winning recipes. Peony Jade’s Top Grade Pure Mao Shan Wang Durian Mooncake in Organic Pandan Snow Skin uses the bittersweet Cat Mountain King durian pulp from Pahang.
This year, they pay tribute once more to Singaporean tastes with the new limited edition Black Thorn Durian Nyonya Mooncake in Coconut Mini Snowskin (S$76 for 8 pieces). Stained a light blue in the tradition of Peranakan desserts coloured with blue pea flower dye, the creamy filling has a hint of bitter that is balanced by the lightly fragrant coconut-flavoured skin.
TWG Tea gives their mooncakes another creative spin. Constellation is a golden-crusted mooncake with Singapore Breakfast Tea infused brown lotus filling, roasted melon seeds and a single egg yolk. The mooncake is part of TWG Tea’s new Red Lantern Tea Mooncake collection of eight delicately crafted tea-infused traditional and snow skin mooncakes (S$60 for 4 or S$16 for 1).
Of course, in sweltering Singapore, the ice-cream mooncake (S$32.80 for 4 or S$8.60 per piece) is a local variant that is most welcomed. Swensen’s has a few new flavours this season. The Queen of Earl Grey has the tea-flavoured ice-cream infused with almond bits. The Pink Guava Romance takes the local fruit and makes it into a refreshing ice-cream and encases it in a smooth snow skin.
When East Meets West Is Best
Apart from local flavours, Singapore’s mooncakes incorporates Western influences as well, a reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of the city-state.
Since mooncakes traditionally combine the sweet with the savoury, the use of salty Western ingredients in mooncakes should come as no surprise. Peony Jade offers the Mini Snowskin Mango Philadelphia Cheese Mooncake (S$58 for 8 pieces), a fragrant savoury-sweet blend of fresh Myanmar Diamond Solitaire, also known as Sein Ta Lone, mango cubes with low-fat Philadelphia cream cheese.
Banking on the popularity of salted caramel, it also is debuting a new Western-influenced flavor, the Mini Snowskin (BanoChoc) Chocolate Salted Caramel Glaze Banana and Walnuts Mooncake (S$49 for 8 pieces). Dark Valrhona chocolate and sweet Del Monte bananas are used.
Variations on a Lunar Theme
For a taste of Cantonese-style savoury mooncakes, try Peony Jade’s Baked Mooncake with Premium ‘Jin Hua’ Ham and Assorted Nuts (S$34 for 2 pieces, S$60 for 4 pieces) or Crystal Jade’s Mixed Nuts & Ham mooncake (S$50 for 4 pieces).
This year, as you sample mooncakes of your choice, don’t just enjoy the various flavours. Let the knowledge that you are partaking of thousands of years of history and the divergent talents of Singapore’s chefs send you over the moon!
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