Text by Jules Vivas
Images by Roc Verdera
The Mid-Autumn Festival is among the most important Chinese holidays, second only to the Lunar New Year. Mooncakes play a central role in the occasion often referred to by many as the Mooncake Festival. Due to Chinese influence, the indispensable pastry has grown more popular in recent years. It is now enjoyed in most parts of Asia as well as some western countries.
The festival is right around the corner and it’s one of the busiest times for restaurant consultant and “instablogger,” Chef Nathaniel Uy. It’s at this time that his friends and their friends begin “hoardering” mooncakes from him. We paid Chef Nathaniel or Chef Nathan, who is more commonly known in the online food community as The Hungry Chef, a visit at his home-based commissary to learn how to make his famous traditional Cantonese lotus seed paste mooncakes.
Chef Nathaniel Uy
What urged him to study making the pastry is his yearning for his childhood mooncakes. As a person who genuinely loves cooking as much as eating, it dawned on him that he wanted to bake something as good, or perhaps even better than the mooncakes he was so fond of in the past. Fortunately, he found a mentor. “I always thought mooncakes were manufactured. I never really knew anyone who made mooncakes, until I met Auntie Purita Son, the mother of our church pastor. She was the one who taught me,” he said. And so, he made mooncakes for himself. Feeding himself was the motive at first until his friends heard about his new hobby.
Chef Nathan first sold his mooncakes only two years ago. Making them had always been just a passion project for him. “Making mooncakes is not easy, it’s labor-intensive and time-consuming. But it has become a personal tradition to make mooncakes for my friends at this time of the year. More and more people order each year, and that’s what I think is important, people enjoying my mooncakes,” he said. “Last year, I had a client who ordered 120 pieces. That’s 30 boxes. Siya lang inasikaso ko for a week (I only took care of his orders for the entire week).” He estimated that he made around 40 mooncakes a week last year. This year, he’s been producing roughly 80 a week. These quantities are by choice. His production starts in August and ends in September.
Covering the filling with the skin
On to the mooncake making. The first step is to prepare the filling, and Chef Nathan only does lotus seed paste, the original and most luxurious of mooncake fillings. “I only make what I eat, and I only eat that,” he said, a testament to how the chef only serves food he has mastery of. “You roast the watermelon seeds n 175℉, and steam the salted egg yolks with rose wine at boiling point, both for 10 minutes.” After that, you mix the lotus paste and roasted seeds, then wrap the salted egg yolk inside.
Once the filling is ready, the next step is to make the skin by mixing butter, flour, and golden syrup (amber-colored liquid made of lye, inverted sugar, and salt). “Normally, people use oil, but it has no taste. I use butter to add flavor and it makes the mooncake more aromatic. After you bake it, mabango talaga,” the chef added.
Raw mooncake being pressed inside the molder
Step three is to roll out the skin into thin sheets, and cover the filling with it. “The skin should be very thin, because traditional mooncakes have thin ‘crust’,” said Chef Nathan. True enough, the essence of Cantonese mooncakes is its thin crust, sweet lotus seed filling, and salty duck egg yolk that symbolizes the full moon.
“When everything has been combined, you now press it down in the molder,” the chef said as he pushed down the raw mooncake inside his Hong Kong-made wooden molder. Afterward, a “special” egg wash composed of a “secret” ingredient, egg, and sugar is applied to each of the formed cakes. Usually, people apply the egg wash after baking. Chef Nathan applies it before.
Finally, he bakes the mooncakes depending on the design. Chef Nathan currently has two pattern —the more intricate one needs a total of 16 minutes baking time, while the generic pattern takes 22 minutes.“After you cook, saan mo ilalagay? Sa aircon, so katabi ko. The mooncakes are literally with me in bed,” the chef confided. For the last step, you let the mooncake rest for three days, preferably uncovered. And they’re done! The mooncakes should be eaten within one week to ensure maximum freshness, but they could last for a month when refrigerated.
Application of egg wash before the mooncakes are baked
To cap off our mooncake tutorial, we tried Chef Nathan’s mooncakes, and they were different from the usual ones you’d buy in stores. Chef’s version is less nutty than commercial mooncakes, but more milky and aromatic, with a lingering sweetness to complement the hint of saltiness from the duck egg core. He also offers mooncakes without eggs.
If you want to try his mooncakes, you may order through his social media accounts @thehungrychef on Instagram, @chef.nathaniel.uy on Facebook, or via his website https://thehungrychefph.com