The Mid-Autumn Festival, affectionately called the "Mooncake Festival" is back again. It’s a time to gather with family, pull out the lanterns from storage and prepare the Chinese tea. Held on the 15th day of the eighth Chinese lunar month (8 September this year), it is also when the moon appears its fullest and brightest. So certainly, the mooncake takes pride of place as we moon-gaze. These pastries that are traditionally made with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk have now become so popular that there is now a burst of flavour varieties, with different pastry skins, fillings and colours. From alcohol-infused snowskin mooncakes to traditional baked versions, we pick the best of the 2014 Mid-Autumn season here, and show you how they are made – just click on to the next slide:
Known in Singapore as Hong Kong's "Mei Xin" (Maxim’s) mooncakes, these traditional Cantonese mooncakes house perfectly round, preserved salted duck egg yolks, which represent the full moon. The Maxim’s group has been producing mooncakes since 1956, so it certainly knows a thing or two about these sweet treats. HungryGoWhere headed over to Maxim's mooncake factory at the Taipo industrial estate in Hong Kong.
It was an assembly line of massive proportions: the smell of freshly-ground lotus paste and freshly baked pastry that wafted through the factory the moment we stepped through the lobby doors, the army of factory workers decked in head-to-toe protective gear in the production area. Traditional Cantonese mooncakes, like the ones made at Mei Xin mooncakes, are usually circular or square cakes, with a thin outer skin and dense filling. They are typically filled with lotus seed paste, red bean paste, mixed nuts and more. The ideal mooncake is one that has a harmonious balance between layer and the filling. Needless to say, there was an extreme level of care that was put into making these high-quality mooncakes.
While one might think that mooncakes are churned out by machine, there is definitely a handmade element to Maxim's mooncakes. Prepared lotus seed paste is scooped into a piping machine by one worker. The paste comes in two varieties – regular and white lotus seed paste. It is at this step that the filling is determined – regular lotus paste, white lotus paste, red bean paste, mixed nuts, no yolk, single yolk or double yolk.
The paste is made from lotus seeds sourced in Hunan, China, which are dried, stewed then mashed into a paste that is passed through sieves and mixed with sweeteners to obtain a smooth, creamy consistency. White lotus paste is made of whole pure lotus seeds while pure lotus paste is made of halved lotus seeds – hence the difference in pricing.
The paste is piped into the centre of a pre-weighed dough ball, which will serve as the pastry encasing the mooncake. The next worker then cuts a dough ball into half, ready to receive the next step – the egg yolks.
Workers place two globular salted, preserved duck egg yolks, into the dough ball half, before packing it together, hand-shaping it and placing it in a mould. Duck eggs, which represent wealth and luxury, are arguably the most prized filling in traditional Cantonese mooncakes. These indulgent, rich globes should be soft and bordering on unctuous when cut. With Maxim's mooncakes, crumbly or dry duck eggs are avoided because ingredients are kept rich, moist and intact, even after the baking process. At the moulding station, the mooncakes are stamped with the company insignia and a traditional pattern. They are then ready for the baking station next door.
Lined with what can only be described as wall-to-wall baking tunnels, the first thing that hits you at the baking station is the aroma of freshly baked pastry. To ensure an even bake, 18 mooncakes are placed a tray, with three trays side by side, and then passed through a massive conveyor belt baking oven. The first five-minute-long bake serves to seal the shape of the mooncake.
Each individual mooncake is then brushed with a precise coating of egg wash – three swipes in a zigzag motion do the trick. They are then placed in the next oven for the second and final bake. In this last 25 minutes, they are crisped to golden brown perfection.
The mooncakes are then left to cool on racks for about 40 minutes before being sent over the packaging station in the next room. There the mooncakes will be quality checked, packed and shipped off to one of Maxim’s 80 distribution points worldwide.
Procedures to maintain the high quality of Maxim's mooncakes come down to four levels of stringent safety checks: they are put through four different tests to ensure that the integrity of the product is not compromised.
The first is a sight test by workers to discard deformed or imperfect mooncake specimens. The second is a metal detector machine to make sure no metal objects might have fallen in during the production process.
The third step is an ultraviolet sterilisation machine to kill surface bacteria. The mooncakes are sealed in plastic wrappers before being sent off to a water bath and pressure meter for the last step, to make sure that there are no leaks in the airtight packaging.
Maxim's premium egg custard mooncakes come in eight pieces per box at $42. While these are a standard offering in Hong Kong during the Mid-Autumn season, egg custard mooncakes have yet to catch on in Singapore. Much like, liu sha bao (golden custard buns), these are best enjoyed after microwaving in the oven for 10 seconds. The runny egg custard interior is luscious and smooth, and you probably won't be able to stop at one.