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The Bay Area is in the middle of a mooncake renaissance

San Francisco Chronicle 8/31/2022 By Momo Chang

Mooncakes are often compared to the Christmas fruitcake, a traditional dessert seen as something mostly elders enjoy. But in the Bay Area, the popularity of mooncakes is on the rise, with bakers making modern versions as well.

These treats — palm-sized baked goods typically filled with a rich paste and a salted duck egg yolk, covered in a thin crust — are eaten for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes place Sept. 10 this year. For many Asian cultures that celebrate holidays based on the lunar calendar, this is the second most important holiday after Lunar New Year.

Many bakeries sell the most traditional Cantonese-style versions filled with dense lotus seed or red bean pastes, though some branch out with taro, pineapple or durian flavors. There are regional variations, such as Vietnamese “snow skin” cakes that are white and nearly translucent, made with glutinous rice flour; the pork-filled Yunnan (a province in China) style; and flaky, thousand-layer crust mooncakes. Expect to pay about $5 per mooncake, but gift sets with beautiful packaging can cost much more.

Bakers say the increased interest in mooncakes — the mainstreaming of them, if you will — is due to nostalgia, the desire to connect with traditions and the flurry of home baking during the pandemic. Kristina Cho, author of James Beard award-winning cookbook “Mooncakes and Milk Bread,” also pointed to more general awareness thanks to media representation, such as the 2020 Netflix animated film “Over the Moon.”

Cho said she sees the evolution, and embrace, of mooncakes in the United States, particularly in the Bay Area from Asian American bakers.

“I think it’s all connected with the Asian American community feeling proud of their culture more,” she said.

While many bakeries sell mooncakes year-round, the month leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival is especially busy. More than a dozen shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown prepare this specialty dessert, according to Tan Chow of the Chinatown Community Development Center.

This includes Garden Bakery, which opened in 1986.

On a recent afternoon, owner Siu Mui Mah was getting ready for the season while customers gathered around tables with dan tat (egg tarts) and freshly baked pineapple buns, sipping on hot coffee or tea.

Two bakers formed their own small assembly line while a vat of golden syrup, a key ingredient made from water, lemon and sugar, boiled away. One baker rolled out the dough, made from cake flour, lye water, oil and golden syrup, then broke off pieces. She rolled those pieces out with a rolling pin, not unlike the process of making dumpling skins, then quickly wrapped them around baseball-sized orbs of filling — red bean paste or lotus seed paste, and some stuffed with one or two salted egg yolks to signify the moon.

She passed them to another baker, who put each one inside a circular mold that’s hooked to an air compressor, gave it a firm pat or two, then pressed a button that released the entire mooncake onto a sheet tray. Each mooncake wore an ornate stamp on top with Chinese characters stating the name of the filling as well as the name of the bakery. (The bakery stopped using the handheld wooden molds about 10 years ago, saying the pneumatic mold is easier on the workers’ shoulders and more efficient.)

Once trays were full and bathed in an egg wash, the baker popped them in the oven for 45 minutes. Then they got another, lighter coat of egg wash and baked for a shorter time at a lower temperature.

While these traditional Cantonese-style mooncakes are time-consuming to make, Bay Area bakeries are also experimenting and debuting modernized versions. Bakers say they remember eating mooncakes with their grandparents and other elders, and they want to pay homage to tradition but with their own twists on fillings and colors.

Oakland cocktail bar Viridian is hosting a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration Sept. 7-30, which will feature executive pastry chef Vince Bugtong’s snow skin mooncake filled with a custard made of salted egg yolk and white chocolate.

Annie’s T Cakes, a home bakery in Oakland, has been selling vegan mooncakes since last year. This year, she debuted a new flavor: matcha with strawberry filling. The mooncakes, alongside her vegan Taiwanese pineapple cakes and almond cookies, are available throughout the year.

Andrew J.K. Hong co-owns and runs Van’s Bakery, a Vietnamese spot in San Jose, which offers traditional Cantonese-style mooncakes and Vietnamese snow skin mooncakes. But he’s starting to branch off from his family’s operation and sell nouveau-style mooncakes. Hong’s mooncakes, sold online and known as DrooTheBaker on Instagram, include flavors like chocolate hazelnut, mochi and burnt almond.

Although he tries to use less traditional mooncake ingredients, he said he didn’t want to manipulate them too much. “At the end of the day, it’s still a mooncake,” Hong said. “I’m pushing it a little bit … and being creative with it.”

Cookbook author Cho was recently boiling a pot of red bean to make mooncakes with her mom in her East Bay home. She makes both traditional and experimental mooncakes, but she doesn’t veer too far in order to not compromise the “structural integrity” of the mooncake shape.

While Cho’s grandparents ran a family restaurant where her parents also worked, they had never made mooncakes at home. Cooking alongside Cho was the first time her mom made mooncakes.

“It’s an interesting role reversal,” Cho said. “It’s rare that I can actually teach her something.”

Cantonese interpreting help from Stephen Lam of The Chronicle and Kifer Hu and Marcus Situ of Self-Help for the Elderly.

Momo Chang (she/her) is a Bay Area freelance writer. Email: food@sfchronicle.com

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