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Snow skin mooncakes make my Mid-Autumn Festival celebration sweeter

Snow skin mooncakes are consumed during the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival, which is Sept. 10 this year.  (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
Snow skin mooncakes are consumed during the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival, which is Sept. 10 this year. (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
By Jess Eng Washington Post

I never considered myself a picky eater, but when traditional Chinese holidays rolled around, I wanted little to do with the customary foods. Zong zi with peanuts for the Dragon Boat Festival? Only a nibble to appease Grandma. Mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival? No way. I’d rather have mochi ice cream!

Call me a strange kid, but unlike my Chinese American friends, I was never fond of the red bean and salted-egg flavors so prevalent in my family’s cuisine. Instead, I was drawn to fruity and creamy treats, like cloyingly sweet green tea mochi ice cream, milk tea with boba and strawberry sherbet.

My first taste of a snow skin mooncake, however, made a crack in this wall of pickiness, creating an opening for the vast frontier of Chinese desserts. A chewy bite of the mooncake reminded me of ichigo daifuku, or strawberry red bean mochi. And the chilled snow skin appealed to my ice-cream-obsessed taste buds. One bite led to another, and soon I was converted to the earthy flavors of the red bean and eager to sample the Chinese treats I once shunned.

Snow skin and traditional mooncakes are served during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, between mid-September and October. This year, the holiday will be on Sept. 10.

Because they can be time-consuming to make, many people buy both types of mooncakes. But for some, including me, it’s much more rewarding to hold a homemade “full moon” in the palm of your hand. So if you’re willing to take a stab at making this venerable treat, I suggest starting with snow skin mooncakes.

On the surface, snow skin mooncakes resemble the intricately designed, flaky mooncakes. Inside, however, they couldn’t be more different.

These lighter, molded cakes arrived in the 1960s from Hong Kong pastry shops that sought to create a less oily dessert than traditional mooncakes, which are usually made with salted duck egg yolks, lotus seed paste and lard, and can take more than a day to prepare.

Instead, snow skin mooncakes incorporate glutinous rice flour, sugar and water, and use simple fillings, such as custard and mung bean paste. The creamy custard can be flavored with fruit juice, cheese or cocoa powder, and the snow-white skin can be dyed various vibrant colors and molded with flower and geometric patterns.

They also are a bit easier for home cooks to tackle because the creamier snack, while still a project, takes only about two hours to make – no baking required.

On Sept. 10, families around the world will come together and rejoice at the luminescent moon, which often is at its biggest and brightest for the harvest season. And while the snow skin mooncake may not be as steeped in tradition as its heartier cousin, it has become a fan favorite during the festival.

Snow Skin Mooncakes

For the filling:

4 large egg yolks

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons cake flour

1 cup whole milk

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the mochi:

Cornstarch or potato starch

1 cup mochiko (sweet rice flour), such as Koda Farms brand

1 cup water

½ cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed

Make the filling: In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until smooth and pale yellow. Sift the cornstarch and cake flour into the bowl and whisk again until well combined. Add the milk and whisk until thoroughly combined.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the egg yolk mixture and stir constantly with a heatproof spatula until the mixture begins to solidify into a paste resembling a very wet dough, 5 to 7 minutes. Don’t be concerned if it starts to curdle – that’s normal. Transfer the custard to a glass container, smooth the surface and press a layer of parchment paper on the surface. Cover and refrigerate until cool, at least 1 hour and up to overnight.

Make the mochi: Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly sprinkle with an even layer of cornstarch or potato starch.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sweet rice flour, water, sugar and oil until it’s smooth and without any visible lumps.

In a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the batter and stir with a heatproof spatula until it forms a soft, pliable ball, 5 to 7 minutes. (Alternatively, you can microwave the batter in 1-minute increments for up to 3 minutes, stirring each time until it becomes soft and pliable.) Using well-oiled gloves or hands, transfer the dough to the baking sheet and divide into 20 (about 15-gram) pieces. Remove the custard from the refrigerator and divide it into 20 (22-gram) pieces.

Dust another piece of parchment paper with cornstarch or potato starch and place a piece of dough on top. Dust lightly with more starch and cover with another piece of parchment. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 3-inch circle. Add a piece of custard to the center of the mochi and fold the mochi over the filling to enclose it.

Lightly dust the inside of the mooncake mold with cornstarch or potato starch, then place the mochi in the mold. Flip the mold over and gently press down on an even, powdered surface for 10 seconds. Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately or, to serve cold, transfer to a container with a lid and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Yield: 20 mooncakes

Notes: Mochi dough can become quite sticky, so there’s no shame in using extra oil to make molding easier. To brush off any extra cornstarch on the mochi, use a fluffy, clean paintbrush. For a vegan option, add red bean paste or mung bean paste to the center of the snow skin mochi; they’re available online or at Asian markets.

Storage notes: Refrigerate in a covered container for up to 1 day.

Where to buy: Mochiko (sweet rice flour) and mooncake molds can be found in Asian markets and online.

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