This past weekends Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival proved to be the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with a food I hadnt eaten in years: moon cakes. After some help from fellow hounds, I embarked on my moon cake mission. First stop: 99 Ranch Market on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. I entered and was confronted by an aisle of moon cakes stacked waist-high.
A search of the bakery department found no single moon cakes for sale. It looked like I would have to buy a whole box of them. But how could I pick one out of the dozens of brands? I wasn't familiar with any of them. After spending nearly an hour studying each box, reading ingredients (when they werent in Chinese), opening lids and peeking at contents (don't worry, all the moon cakes were covered in plastic and I wasn't the only one doing this), I settled on four different boxes.
Next stop--Huy Ky Bakery at 4550 University Ave. (thanks, Kirk!) Although the selection of flavors was the same as at 99 Ranch, I was able to purchase individual moon cakes here for about $3 each.
Then I headed home and began eating. I tasted all the moon cakes together side by side. My kids enthusiastically agreed to help, but only on the condition that they didnt have to eat the yolks. Results (in no particular order):
Pearl River Bridge
Made in: Guangzhou, China
Specifications: Square-shaped, 3 diameter, 185 grams/6 oz.
Flavor: Red bean paste (1 yolk)
Notes: These cakes had a dark golden crust with Chinese characters on the top. The crust was moist, a bit oily, and generally lacking in flavor. I found the red bean paste filling sweet and mild tasting, with a light molasses flavor. I didnt eat the crumbly, dry egg yolks. My favorite of the red bean paste cakes.
The Garden Co.
Price: $19.99 (the most expensive of the bunch)
Made in: Hong Kong
Specifications: Round, 3 diameter, 195 grams/6 3/4 oz.
Flavor: White Lotus Seed Paste (with 2 yolks)
Notes: These cakes contained 2 egg yolks, which were alarmingly runny when I cut into the cakes, so I avoided eating them. The crust was soft, without much flavor. The filling had a firm, putty-like consistency, but I liked the sweet, nutty lotus flavor. My favorite lotus cake.
Made in: San Francisco, CA
Specifications: Round cakes, 2 diameter, 55-65 grams/2-2 1/4 oz.
Flavors: 6 small assorted (2 each of bean, lotus, date)
Notes: The crusts had a soft, bread-like flavor and texture. The bean paste wasnt bad, but didnt have much flavor either. Of the 3 red bean cakes, I ranked this one in the middle. The lotus cake was completely lacking in flavor except for the one or two pine nuts inside. The date, on the other hand, was nastybitter, with an overpowering molasses flavor.
Made in: San Diego
Cakes: 3 1/4 diameter, 175-200 grams/6-7 1/4 oz.
Flavors: Assorted--red bean (#18), lotus (#7), mixed nuts/fruits (#5), and one mystery flavor, a pale yellow paste (#10) that I could not identify.
Notes: The crusts on the 4 cakes varied from a light tan to a dark, almost burnt, brown. These cakes had the most beautiful designs on the top. One was a large, open flower with overlapping petalsin the center, were the Chinese characters for mid- and autumn, (I think). The other was a winding dragon and a phoenix encircling the characters.
The crusts on the Huy Ky moon cakes were my favoriteflaky, with a delicate sweet flavor. The red bean paste cake, however, had a pronounced off flavor. I liked this one least of the 3 red bean cakes I sampled, although one of my daughters said it was her favorite. The lotus moon cake wasnt bad, with a light, mild lotus flavor, and a slightly dry paste. I ranked this cake second behind the Garden lotus cake. The mixed nuts and candied fruit moon cake I didnt care for at all. Too reminiscent of American fruitcake. It had an odd blend of texturescrunchy bits of fruit and soft, boiled nuts, some of which were burned.
The moon cakes were all purchased at 99 Ranch Market in San Diego on Thursday, September 15, 2005. Because I could not purchase the moon cakes individually, price limited my selection somewhat. Most of cakes were packaged in boxes or tins of four, ranging in price from $12-20, although there were a few even larger and more elaborate. I decided to limit my choices (and budget) to four boxes. They were more or less chosen at random with the following guidelines: I selected both domestic (including one local to San Diego) and imported products (one from Guangzhou, where I had lived in China). I chose a variety of flavors, but wanted at least several of each flavor (red bean and lotus, as these are my favorite) to compare bakeries. My total purchase amounted to $60 and I received a red gift bag with each tin.
Considering how sweet and dense each moon cake is, one box is more than enough to feed an entire family. Eating more than two entire moon cakes at one sitting, even for the noble purpose of food blogging, is not recommended.
While they are not something I would eat every week, I still enjoyed this tasting immensely. It brought back many good memories of the last time I ate moon cakes (teaching in China) and the students I shared them with.
Rather than a comprehensive taste test, I consider this an early experiment, a baseline, and I welcome any comments or suggestions that deepen my knowledge of moon cakes. Now that I am familiar with them again, I cant wait until next year.
For more details and photos, see link below: