But then curiosity sat like the devil on my shoulder and I started looking up what it actually took to make your own mooncakes ... and wow, it looked so SIMPLE. Only 3 ingredients, of which the one exotic ingredient (golden syrup) could be substituted with plain ol' honey, and no arcane techniques involved! One thing led to another, I found myself suddenly in possession of a set of plastic mooncake plunger molds, and I found that, yes ... Chinese baking is extraordinarily finicky. This is probably the first and only recipe I have where the notes section is longer than the actual instructions, and I have never made so many batches of the same thing in as many days, (accidentally) figuring out every failure case possible in order to get things just right.
Take the following with a grain of salt; I have a feeling that things may be slightly different with other people's kitchen appliances and I had to do a lot of guesswork reading between badly translated lines. Make sure to read all the notes beforehand so that you can learn from my mistakes!
This recipe was mostly adapted from the China Si Chuan Food site.
- To make the wrapper: Pour the vegetable oil, honey, and water into a large mixing bowl. Whisk well until they are all combined. Sift in a third of the flour and whisk. Sift in the rest of the flour and use a spatula to fold the flour in - as you work, the dough will start to become shaggy. Do not overwork it - go slowly, and you may notice that the flour slowly "soaks in". When there is very little loose flour left, set aside the spatula and use your hands to knead the dough together into one mass. Roll into a ball - most of the dry flour should by now be absorbed, but if you still see uneven bits, knead the ball a few more times. Once everything is evenly mixed, wrap well with saran wrap, and let rest for 1 hour.
- (For the proportions of filling and dough, see the notes section below.) Measure the filling out into separate portions according to weight and roll each portion into a ball. (If you are inserting a mochi in the center, wrap the filling around the mochi until it is completely covered, then roll into a ball.) If you are working with a filling that is more moist (such as lotus seed) you can keep it chilled in either the refrigerator or the freezer before using.
- Measure out the appropriate amounts for the dough, rolling each portion into a ball. Because it is easy for the dough to dry out, keep everything lightly covered with saran wrap. Take one of the dough balls and gently start to flatten the center of the dough, forming a disc with thicker edges and a thinner center. Place the ball of filling in the center, then continue gently pressing and thinning the dough up the sides of the filling until the edges wrap up and over the top. Pinch closed the seam and any other holes in the dough, so that the filling is completely covered. Roll the whole ball between your palms until the surface is more or less smooth. Do this for each ball of filling until you are either out of dough or filling.
- Set the oven rack to the upper third of the oven (see note 4 below) and set the oven to 350 F.
- Coat the resultant cake ball with a layer of flour, then carefully brushing off the excess. Put the cake ball in the mold, then press the mold onto the table. Give the plunger a half dozen good, strong stamping motions, then lift up the mold. If the cake does not automatically fall out, push on the plunger while the mold is lifted, and the cake should come out.
- Line a baking sheet with foil and arrange the cakes on top. Bake for 6 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, make the egg wash by whisking the egg.
- Take out the half-baked mooncakes and brush a thin layer of the egg wash over them, then return to the oven and continue baking for 10-12 minutes or until the mooncakes become golden brown.
- (Optional) I sometimes add a honey wash after the cakes cool down a little bit, which not only helps the baked dough become moist and soft faster, but can help put a nice sweet-ish glaze on the skin. Whisk together the honey and water until the honey is dissolved, then brush over the baked mooncakes. Return the mooncakes to the oven for about 3-4 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and let cool. Wrap in film or place in an airtight container. Wait for 1-2 days for the pastry to become soft. (Or, if you prefer, they may be consumed immediately for a "crunchier" shell.)
- The proportions for the wrapper are VERY important! Do not try to convert to cups and tablespoons - I tried and they failed miserably. The only way I was able to get a reliable dough was to use weighing, which I had been thus far able to avoid even for cake recipes. The resultant ball of dough should be slightly oily, pliable, and a consistent amber throughout, with no hints of dry flour at all. Too much flour, and the dough became too dry and would break up when handled. Too much oil, and the dough wouldn't stretch - pressing and kneading for mooncake wrappers would result in the dough starting to separate.
Also be aware that you may be leaving behind as much as a teaspoon of oil or honey behind if you are using another bowl for measuring and then pouring into the mixing bowl. To make it easy on myself, I've simply poured them directly into the mixing bowl, zeroing out the value in between each ingredient, though be careful, if you overpour, you'll have a tough time walking back the extra portion! If using multiple bowls, make sure to use a spatula to scrape down the bowl.
- For small mooncakes: 22g filling, 32g dough
For large mooncakes: 60g filling, 65g dough. If using a mochi center, divide the filling into 20g mochi, 40g filling (you will want a thicker wrapping for the large cake to help it keep its shape)
- The goal is to "roll" the dough up and around the ball of filling, and this step is why it's important to have a filling that is dry enough to have some "resistance" - otherwise, pressing will simply squeeze the filling out too. The trick is to press the center of the dough disc into the approximate thickness you want, leaving the thicker dough around the outer rim, then once the filling is in place, using your thumbs to continue "pressing" the thicker dough so that the excess is squeezed up, NOT pushed up - pushing the dough upwards may create tears in the wrapper. If your filling is too soft to push against, you can pinch the dough edges to the desired thickness while continuing to mold it around the filling, or you can roll the filling into balls on a baking sheet and put it in the freezer for 10 minutes or so.
- I like to put the rack in the upper third of the oven to prevent the bottom of the cakes from becoming too dark and bitter. Depending on your oven, you may or may not need to do this.
- The mold I am using are the plastic plunger types - not the traditional wooden ones, which have a different technique for filling and loosening the cake from. To fill these plastic molds, I lightly squeeze the ball into an oval shape so that I'm sure I can fit it inside the mold without catching the dough on the edges. Once inside the mold completely (don't worry if some of the dough still sticks out), push the mold down onto the work surface and let the work surface push the excess dough completely into the mold (the pressure will deform the cake so that it fills the interior of the mold without tearing).
Don't be afraid to use a little more strength than you think you need on the plunger - being too gentle can result in the design and shape softening and disappearing when the cake starts cooking. The force will also help to compact the filling and dough, and there is little chance that anything will "squeeze" out. I tend to just slap my hand down on the plunger 3 or 4 times rather than trying to do a single press.