Growing up in a Chinese household, every year I would look forward to the transition period between summer and fall—that time of year when the weather started to cool down, but not so much that summer clothes had to be put away.
It signaled the approach of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday similar to Thanksgiving, when families reunite and offer appreciation for the fall harvest. And most importantly to my childhood self, it meant getting to eat mooncakes—the sweet pastries traditionally eaten during the holiday.
Because traditional holidays follow the lunar calendar, the festival falls on a different day each year. This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival takes place on Sept. 27.
Where my family is from—Guangzhou, or Canton, in the south of China—the most popular mooncakes are those with a filling of lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk (duck egg). The paste is intensely rich and dense, with the egg acting as a counterpoint and cutting through the sweetness with its salty, nutty essence. The best quality mooncakes have a smooth paste and crumbly egg yolks moist with oil—but not greasy.
My mother, who has her finger on the pulse of all things delicious in Chinatown, recommended mooncakes made by Maxim’s (or Mei Xin), a 60-year-old Hong Kong company with a reputation for being among the best ($35 for a box of six mooncakes).
It proved a solid choice. When I shared the cakes with my colleagues from the China reporting team, they instantly became enamored—even those who had never been very fond of mooncakes. Their usual serious demeanors disappeared as they munched happily and proclaimed the need to get more for themselves.
If savory-and-sweet treats are not your cup of tea, you can get mooncakes with a filling of pure lotus seed paste, without eggs. And for a more delicate take on the pastry, Maxim’s has a reduced-sugar version with pine nuts, featuring a less cloying lotus paste.
There are other traditional fillings, such as red bean paste, perfect for those with a sweet tooth, and mixed nuts, a crunchy combination of melon seeds, almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, and peanuts—flavored with a variety of spices. Maxim’s version uses five-spice seasoning and replaces peanuts with pine nuts, but it still bears the same resemblance to fruitcake, with a citrusy tang from dried lemons.
And for those who may be tiring of the old-school flavors, there are newfangled icy (or “snow skin”) mooncakes, found in the frozen section ($7.99 for a box of two mooncakes). Like mochi, the skin is made with glutinous rice, while the filling is usually made of mung bean paste and fruity jams. I wasn’t a big fan of these, but Maxim’s has a Mango Pomelo flavor that could please mango lovers.
Some final tips for the uninitiated: the cakes are heavy, so they are meant to be shared. And some light, fragrant Chinese tea is perfect for washing them down.
Sold at major Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown. The mooncakes featured in this article were bought at Po Wing Hong Food Market (49 Elizabeth St., www.PoWing.com)