The burly customs officer was talking to a Chinese couple when I approached the final barrier at Newark Airport last September. My long white US customs declaration form.was flapping and I was eager to hand it over and get the PATH train home. What was he quizzing them about? It was obvious from their faces that they did not speak English.

As I slid over another officer, I heard him ask politely, “And do you have mooncakes?” I was happy to hear his reassuring tone because I had mooncakes in my suitcase, too. Everyone getting off a plane from China this time of year is carrying mooncakes, the ritual pastry of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

I have a special affection for the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiújié 中秋节), also known as the Moon Festival. It takes place a little early in 2016, with the full moon tonight (for those of us in the western hemisphere). Step outside for a few minutes and bask in the light of what American farmers called the Full Corn Moon.

What I don’t love is the commercial frenzy over mooncakes, attractive round pastries that feel like lumps of lead in the hand, and are filled with bland, dense, sweetened lotus seed paste and a discolored, salty, cooked egg yolk. The pastry itself is like shiny cardboard.

They are sold everywhere in China at this season, with pop-up stores for luxury mooncakes in the hotels, and stacks of fancy boxes everywhere you turn. They are ubiquitous but utterly commodified: no one, as far as I could tell, bothered to eat them. They just put them on the table or regifted them—the lavish boxes were the point of the whole thing.

But reading mooncake recipes today was a revelation: they are apparently, when homemade, a delicious treat. This was hard to believe until I thought about British pork pies, which are quite similar in appearance: round, straight-sided pies with a dense filling. If the only pork pie you’d ever tasted was a cheap supermarket version, you’d consider them inedible. But a properly made pork pie is an amazing thing, with unique type of pastry (a hot-water raised crust) and savory, firm filling.

The same seems to be true of mooncakes. Our friend and colleague Carolyn Phillips writes, “I had tried one fantastic moon cake during my first year in Taiwan. The mom in my host family handed me a freshly baked coconut moon cake my very first Moon Festival, and it is one that I’ve never been able to forget. That was, of course, also my very first moon cake, and nothing ever measured up to it in the succeeding decades.” Carolyn spent weeks figuring out how to make a mooncake successfully at home, and you can read her recipes at her blog (the lovely drawing above is her work). Better yet, get a copy of her magnificent new book, All Under Heaven, fresh off the press from Ten Speed and McSweeney’s. It’s a stunner, and more comprehensive than any other Chinese cookbook on my shelf.

For more about the history of mooncakes, please click here to visit our blog and read the Qing dynasty recipe recorded by the poet Yuan Mei, whose classic treatise on food we’ll be publishing in a few months.

I hope we can all enjoy the beautiful full moon this year and perhaps take the occasion to be thankful for the recent signing of the Paris climate accord by the United States, China, and Brazil. The sun and moon shed light on all of us, on this planet we share.

Here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋快乐 ! / continued at A Mooncake Recipe from the Qing Dynasty




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