Mooncakes are a special pastry eaten in celebration of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important festival in the Middle Kingdom after Chinese New Year. Mooncakes are so-named because of their affiliation with this autumnal holiday, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (usually early to mid October) when the moon is at its brightest and biggest of the year.
Though there are several varieties of mooncakes, the basic recipe consists of a small round or rectangular pastry about the size of a palm and about 4-5 cm thick. Mooncakes are generally made of a chewy or flaky crust and filled with any number of fillings, such as lotus paste, egg yolk or sweet bean paste.
The most common type of mooncake is the Cantonese-style, which originated around Guangdong province in southern China. These mooncakes have a thick, chewy crust and a variety of possible fillings. Other types of mooncakes include the Suzhou and Ningbo-style cakes, which have flakier crusts and tend to be slightly smaller in diameter, while Yunnan mooncakes contain buckwheat flour and Beijing cakes use a lighter foamy dough.
The most distinguishing features of mooncakes are the images imprinted on their tops. These images usually depict the Chinese characters for ‘longevity’ or ‘harmony’. Other imprints might include the moon, a woman on the moon or other harmonious figures like vines, flowers or rabbits.
Because of their growing popularity around the world, mooncakes have become increasingly expensive in recent times, costing as much as $5 in North America. In China, boxes of six or twelve mooncakes are often given as gifts to friends and family members during Mid-Autumn Festival. These ornate box sets often include beautifully decorated individual for each cake and make for a wonderful presentation during the holiday, as well as a sweet snack!