What are mooncakes? Behind the iconic Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival treat

The advent of fall ushers in a variety of seasonal foods — from apple cider doughnuts and pumpkin spice Oreos to sweet potato pie — and for many Asians and Asian Americans, it also means the arrival of the ubiquitous mooncake.

Mooncakes are the hallmark food of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a cultural and religious holiday that is celebrated during the fall harvest. The pastries are eaten around the time when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and brightest. They’re given as gifts to family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and employees, a traditional gesture that accompanies family gatherings and public celebrations.

Snow Skin Mooncake with Custard Filling by Maggie Zhu and Lilja Walter

The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which typically coincides with a date in August, September or October. This year, it will be celebrated on Oct. 1. It’s observed as an official holiday in China, South Korea and Taiwan, but it’s also widely celebrated in other countries, like Japan, Singapore and Vietnam, where it’s known as Tet Trung Thu and is celebrated as a children’s festival.

Snow skin mooncakes, like the two pictured, are no-bake pastries. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)
Snow skin mooncakes, like the two pictured, are no-bake pastries. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)

What are mooncakes?

Mooncakes are a type of snack or dessert pastry with a sweet or savory filling. They are primarily round, to reflect the shape of the moon, but can also be square-shaped. Traditional Chinese mooncakes, specifically Cantonese-style mooncakes, are baked, golden-brown and molded or stamped on top with the name of the filling.

Typical sweet fillings include sweet bean paste, lotus seed paste or red date (jujube) paste that envelops one or more mini salted, cured duck egg yolks. Some popular savory fillings include ham, Chinese sausage, roast pork and radish. Another traditional filling is mixed nuts and dried fruit. The outside layer of the mooncake is another dough made with cake flour.

Editor, food blogger and former TODAY intern Suzanne Nuyen summed up the general perspective on mooncakes simply: “I feel like mooncakes are a very polarizing food. You either love them or you hate them.” But at the same time, she told TODAY Food, “I don’t think the traditional mooncake will ever die out. There will still be a place for it. They’ve been around for so long.”

Sheng Kee Bakery's mooncakes are pressed with the flavor of each pastry on the top. (Courtesy June Lin)
Sheng Kee Bakery’s mooncakes are pressed with the flavor of each pastry on the top. (Courtesy June Lin)

Over the years, nontraditional mooncakes have been filled with everything from alcoholic infusions, ice cream, jellies, red velvet, rum raisin and tiramisu. Snow skin mooncakes, which are chilled and made with a mochi-like dough, are also a popular alternative to baked mooncakes. Another mooncake growing in popularity is the pastry mooncake, which has a light, flaky puff pastry surrounding the egg yolk. Sheng Kee Bakery, based in Brisbane, California for the last four decades, ships baked mooncakes to all 50 states and also offers nontraditional baked goods like tea mooncakes and egg yolk, green bean and taro pastries.

In addition to traditional baked mooncakes, Sheng Kee Bakery also offers nontraditional pastries for mid-autumn festival, including taro pastries (pictured). (Courtesy Li Kong)
In addition to traditional baked mooncakes, Sheng Kee Bakery also offers nontraditional pastries for mid-autumn festival, including taro pastries (pictured). (Courtesy Li Kong)

Mooncakes range in size from large to small. Sheng Kee’s marketing director, Arthur Kao, whose family also owns the bakery chain, told TODAY, “Our large mooncakes, in terms of diameter, is almost two and a half to three inches across and about an inch and a half to two inches tall. It’s a pretty large size mooncake … (but) the trend is actually moving away from large mooncakes and going more towards small mooncakes and other pastries.”

Nuyen has been making mooncakes for a few weekends out of the year with her mother and sister for the last seven to eight years, and her family’s mooncakes are 150 grams or about three inches in diameter. “They very comfortably fit in the palm of your hand,” she said.

One of Nuyen's baked mooncakes with a nontraditional pressed lattice pattern. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)
One of Nuyen’s baked mooncakes with a nontraditional pressed lattice pattern. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)

Nuyen and her family sell their limited-batch mooncakes to friends and customers in the Chicago-area through word of mouth. Their business has grown significantly since Nuyen started her food blog, Bun Bo Bae. “We’ve sold between like 100 to 250 (mooncakes) every weekend, sometimes more, sometimes less,” she said. “This year, we’ve sold out every single week at 250-300 mooncakes a week, for five weeks.”

What’s the meaning behind mooncakes?

The central theme surrounding mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival is that of community. Kao said, “For a lot of Asian Americans, for all of us who are born here, and also came here, the Mooncake Festival means a lot to us. It’s like our Thanksgiving, time to hang out as you would, stress-free with your family and really share that space.”

For Nuyen, the holiday is a special time to spend with family. “Mid-Autumn, like a lot of holidays that are important to my culture, is all about family. So the most fun part is getting to see my mom every year … There’s nothing more valuable than getting to see my mom for that amount of time and connecting with her through her heritage, especially this year, when COVID-19 has made it harder to see her more often.

“In Vietnam, it’s a children’s holiday. And people will light lanterns and kids will go out for the parade. And it’s been a lot of fun seeing what the holiday means for different Asian cultures. I don’t think it’s a children’s holiday in China. It’s just all about spending time with your family and celebrating the start of autumn and admiring the big full moon.”

Nuyen also compared the tradition of gifting mooncakes to that of Christmas fruitcake. “We all buy them and give them to each other during the mid-autumn season, but you know, not everyone wants to receive a mooncake,” she said.

Zhu has been experimenting with different mooncake recipes in her home kitchen. (Courtesy Maggie Zhu)
Zhu has been experimenting with different mooncake recipes in her home kitchen. (Courtesy Maggie Zhu)

Maggie Zhu, a recipe developer, photographer and food blogger behind Omnivore’s Cookbook, describes the holiday a little differently. “I would compare Mid-Autumn Festival to Easter,” she told TODAY. Zhu, who is originally from China and is now based in New York City, said, “It’s a little bit about family gathering and a little bit religious, and then there’s the moon, that’s when you have the full moon. It’s one of those festivals in the middle of the year, leading to the big one (Chinese New Year).

“We would go to grandma’s place, we gather, we cook something together and we share it, like we are gifting mooncakes but it’s not as big as Chinese New Year,” she continued.

How do you make mooncakes?

Making mooncakes from scratch requires patience — many steps and plenty of time. “From start to finish, our dough from scratch at home, it would be probably seven to eight hours, but the way that we do it, we do it more production style,” said Kao. “We make probably 1.3 to 1.4 million individual pieces a year. So for us, we’ve automated a lot of the painstaking processes. We do things in large batches. So it’s the filling, we separate it from the whole process, I’d say, it would take probably a week to get a full batch ready to go.”

Mooncake fillings with egg yolks before they're combined with the outer dough layer. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)
Mooncake fillings with egg yolks before they’re combined with the outer dough layer. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)

Nuyen described the process as a four-day affair. “We do a different task on each day. So maybe the first day, we start cutting up all of the ingredients. Because the fruit, nut ones have so many different ingredients, we have to cut them all up to be the same size and so, that will take pretty much the entire day. And then the next day, we will start cooking down the bean paste fillings so that they can cool overnight.

“And then day two, we will roll all of those fillings into balls to get ready to press them, so we make our own salted egg yolks as well and those take five weeks of curing and salt water before we can crack them open, rinse the egg yolks off and bake them with a little bit of sesame oil and sugar. So that’s a five week process.

Baked mooncakes are often filled with between one and four egg yolks, depending on the pastry size. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)
Baked mooncakes are often filled with between one and four egg yolks, depending on the pastry size. (Courtesy Suzanne Nuyen)

“So we take the eggs, people order one or two eggs, we roll it up into a ball filling and that usually takes all day the second day. And then the third day, we take those fillings and we finally start wrapping them in the various doughs and putting them through presses and baking them,” continued Nuyen. “So depending on how many orders we have, we might do only the baked ones, day three, and then only the snow skin ones, day four. And then day five, we package them all and ship them and then, after, the cakes have to cool overnight on racks as well before we can put them in.”

Zhu, who grew up eating mooncakes as a child, only made her first mooncake a few years ago, after months of recipe experimentation. “A lot of Chinese baking is measuring the alkalinity and acid in different ingredients. It comes down to the chemical (properties) that actually have a certain ratio, and the (ingredients) react with the filling.

Zhu uses a plastic mooncake press like this one that lends the pastries a floral pattern. (Courtesy Maggie Zhu)
Zhu uses a plastic mooncake press like this one that lends the pastries a floral pattern. (Courtesy Maggie Zhu)

“The traditional (mooncake), you’ll keep that in room temperature for like a long time. So the key is to have a good ratio of sweetness, like sugar, and the oil in the filling. The oil inside the filling has to be seeping out to the skin, because you want the soft texture for that type of mooncake. I’m not saying that that’s my favorite but that’s the feature of the traditional mooncake, and if it’s not done right, then you’ve ended up with a dry mooncake.”

Making mooncakes at home allows you the freedom to adjust the ingredients to your taste, like the amount of sugar syrup used. Both Nuyen and Zhu agreed that homemade mooncakes are fresher, less sweet and baked mooncakes can even be less greasy. Zhu noted that “the thing about traditional mooncake is you’re not supposed to eat it after you’ve just made it.” She recommended waiting at least a couple of days to eat them after baking to ensure they’re not dry.

Mooncakes can be made in multiple batches with different fillings and pressed with different patterns. (Courtesy Maggie Zhu)
Mooncakes can be made in multiple batches with different fillings and pressed with different patterns. (Courtesy Maggie Zhu)

Instead of the baked mooncake, Zhu recommends first-time mooncake-makers try out snow skin mooncakes. The snow skin dough is similar to mochi and “is a little bit more approachable because mochi is trendy right now and it does not require baking.”