By Gordon Mark and Chichi Wang | The Mid-Autumn Festival begins tomorrow, October 3rd, and for me and many other Asian people, that means it's time for a mooncake! The mooncakes that I am familiar with are Cantonese in origin. Circular or square cakes, with a thin outer skin and thick inner filling, they're usually composed of lotus seed, peanut, or red bean paste. Alternatively, you may have seen round and white cakes with a flaky exterior and red stamping on the surface. These mooncakes are more prevalent in the Suzhou region, yet not as easily found in the United States.
If you've been around any Chinatown neighborhood recently, you will have noticed boxes of Cantonese-style mooncakes at the grocery stores, supermarkets, and bakeries. When you're buying a box of these, you'll get a gift bag to hold them; the whole package is often given as a gift to family and friends. (But if you just want to try one mooncake, fear not; bakeries will sell them individually.)
The ideal mooncake achieves a harmony between outer casing and inner filling. The shell should be moist and cohesive; when cut into, few crumbs should drop. Inside, the filling should be intense without tasting overly sweet. If it is a red bean filling, for instance, it should taste extremely beany. Representing wealth and luxury, duck egg yolks are the most prized additions to the fillings. While pricier, mooncakes with yolks are much more indulgent and rich. The best duck egg yolks should be soft and unctuous; if you cut into a dry, crumbly duck egg yolk, the mooncake has mostly likely been too dried out.
Our favorite mooncakes, after the jump.
From Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester Street, we tried an expensive brand, Tai Wing Wah at $32, and an inexpensive brand, ACC at $11, to compare.
The Tai Wing Wah brand has been my go-to for mooncakes. But on this taste test it was quite a disappointment. We got the lotus seed paste with one yolk. Maybe it was just this box, or maybe they're using a new recipe, but it doesn't taste as good as it once did; there was little peanuty taste. Also even worse it had a kind of slight chemical taste to it coming from the crust.
I didn't really have any expectations for the ACC brand, because it fell into the lower price range, but surprisingly, it was really tasty.
It was also a lotus seed paste with one yolk. That yolk was incredibly moist, with oil oozing out as we cut into it. The filling of the mooncake tasted intensely of peanuts—creamy, but not too sweet.
At $11 dollars, the ACC brand is an incredible bargain for its high quality. (Look for the silver tins, which can be found at Chinese markets across the nation).
Most of the bigger bakeries will make their own mooncakes, with prices around $14 to $25. From Fay Da, we tried both the regular lotus seed paste mooncakes with no yolk, and a box containing an assortment.
The lotus seed paste ones were gummy and overly dense, with very little flavor.
The assortment from Fay Da contained four different types of filling: lotus seed paste with one yolk, mixed nuts, date/jujube, and pineapple. The egg yolk in the lotus seed paste took up too much of the mooncake's volume and taste. Unpleasantly grainy and chewy, the mixed nut filling was not unlike that of a granola bar. The date/jujube filling was the best of the assortment, having a strong taste of dates. Generous pieces of walnut complement the sweetness of the dates. Finally, the pineapple filling was absolutely candylike, perhaps catering to kid's palate.
Though our sampling of mooncakes was far from comprehensive, this survey was meant to give prospective mooncake buyers an idea of what to look for in the ideal cake. So if you have any favorites, share in the comments.