HANDMADE mooncakes are rare these days since they are very labor-intensive and not many dim sum chefs want to make them. Ruby Gao visits masters of legendary egg custard mooncakes.
Thirty minutes after it’s taken out of oven and cooled a bit, the slightly warm handmade egg custard mooncake tastes its best. The fragrance combines milk and coconut, the crust is crispy and buttery, the golden custard filling is rich, silky and sweet, with a subtle savory hint.
This traditional Mid-Autumn Festival treat is rather small, delicate and manageable, around 5.5 centimeters in diameter, not like the big heavy “doorstop” mooncakes so commonly seen.
But it’s increasingly hard to find this kind of treat because fewer and fewer Chinese are willing to become dim sum chef doing the required, flavor-intensive work.
Although mooncakes are pastry, it’s the dim sum chef who does the work, pressing, rolling and wrapping to perfection, often drawing on years of dedication to producing treats.
“In making a mooncake, the dim sum chef dedicates himself to the task so that each bite has that distinctive, hard-to-describe homey taste. It’s a warm and heart-touching tasting experience, the raison d’etre of handmade,” says Yip Wing Wah, the dim sum “ambassador” for The Peninsula Hotel. He retired as the dim sum chef at The Peninsula Hong Kong last year.
Chef Yip, 60, son of a Hong Kong dim sum chef, has been making dim sum, especially mooncakes, for 47 years. He established his name in 1986, when he created the first egg custard mooncake.
“I was inspired by traditional Cantonese dim sum nai huang bao (egg custard steamed bun ÄÌ»Æ°ü) and tried to combine the Chinese filling with Western custard,” says Yip in an e-mail interview with Shanghai Daily.
His mooncakes were quickly sold out. They have become among the most popular in Hong Kong and also on China’s mainland.
Last year in Hong Kong, people were known to quarrel over the last box of chef Yip’s egg custard mooncakes.
Restaurants and manufacturers have tried in vain to recreate the flavor and texture.
“We’ve already made the recipe public, but even so, it’s impossible to copy because it’s our hands that make the taste different,” says Lai Wing Koon, an apprentice of chef Yip, and now head dim sum chef at The Peninsula Shanghai.
The chef holds out his hands, seemingly ordinary but much rougher than most. He suffers wrist pain caused by continual gripping and twisting dough over the years.
We were allowed to visit chef Lai’s kitchen where we tried to find out the secret behind the delicacy.
A quaint carved wooden mold and a Chinese steelyard or hand scale with weights are used to weigh and measure the ingredients of the dough and custard filling. He prefers the old-time scale to the modern, electronic weighing devices.
Flour, butter and egg gradually turn into milk-white dough as the chef rolls, presses and kneads it.
“An experienced chef precisely controls his hand pressure,” Lai says. “If it’s too strong, it will cause the crust to break during baking. If too gentle, the final texture will be influenced and not crispy enough.”
It’s impossible to explain the correct pressure using language or sketches, he says. Experience is everything and apprentices learn by watching and practicing.
Hands make the difference
“The hand is our most important measure,” says chef Yip, adding that it sometimes works better than advanced scales.
Each piece of dough for a single mooncake, in addition to being weighed in the scale, is again weighed in the chef’s hand and he can tell by the heft whether the dough and filling will fit perfectly in the mold.
“I also use my hand to measure whether the dough is ready,” chef Lai says.
When his palm presses the dough and doesn’t leave a palm print, then it’s ready and the filling can be placed inside and the whole can be sent to the oven.
This takes dedication and speed.
At The Peninsula Shanghai, for example, the mooncake team of four dim sum chefs will turn out 300 boxes a day, each containing eight pieces. Every chef makes an average of 600 cakes a day on average.
From 8am to 6pm, chefs repeat the same steps. Lunch is a luxury.
Chef Lai inspects the cakes carefully and sometimes “redoes” three cakes among 10 because the decorative lines are the crust are not clear enough.
He insists on perfection.
“Mooncakes represent family reunion and bring happiness. No matter how hard the work is, I consider making mooncakes a way of expressing happiness,” says chef Yip.
He believes that dedication determines the quality and flavor.
Hard to continue
Consumers snap up these special mooncakes because handmade cakes are rare. No more than 10 places in Shanghai offer handmade mooncakes.
Lack of dim sum chefs is part of the reason.
“If I had been born into a wealthy family and well educated, I would not have become a dim sum chef,” says chef Lai.
His son shows a keen interest in making dim sum, but the father is strongly opposed.
“Being a dim sum chef is too hard,” he says.
Compared with the prospects of Western pastry chefs, the future of Chinese dim sum chefs is less promising, although the professional skills of the two are similar.
In the West, chefs and pastry chefs enjoy nearly equal status and both can become executive chefs, food and beverage directors and even higher. Both can open their own restaurants or bakeries, publish their recipes and even become celebrity TV chefs.
However, a dim sum chef always plays a subordinate role in a Chinese kitchen, generally subordinate to a cook.
Dim sum chefs are not even called chefs by customers but shifu, a respectful form of address generally used for people engaged in specialized trade.
“It’s nearly impossible for a dim sum chef promoted to executive chef in a hotel,” says a hotel insider, declining to be quoted by name.
It is also difficult to find any store or restaurant selling nothing but dim sum in China.
Handmade mooncakes available in Shanghai
Generally, handmade mooncakes available in Shanghai are either Cantonese or Suzhou style.
Cantonese cakes have a brown, glossy crust and creamy, sweet filling, such as lotus seed paste, red bean paste and jujube.
Suzhou-style mooncakes have a flaky crust and diverse fillings, from sweetened rose petals to pork.
Xinya Cantonese Restaurant
It sells both mass-produced and handmade Cantonese-style mooncakes. The mass-produced cakes have diverse fillings, while the handmade cakes are only filled with ground, sweetened lotus seeds. Customers can only buy mooncakes with a voucher. Cash and credit cards are not accepted.
Address: 719 Nanjing Rd E.
Wang Jia Sha
The food store is known for Suzhou-style mooncakes with a filling of pork and pickled mustard. The crisp mustard cuts through the fatty pork and each bite has rich textures and flavors.
Mooncakes are often sold out by 4pm due to limited production.
Address: 805 Nanjing Rd W.
Lao Da Fang
The time-honored food store makes some of the most popular Suzhou-style mooncakes in town. The flaky and crispy crust absorbs meat juice from the filling and tasts aromatic. The pork filling is tender and juicy. During Mid-Autumn Festival season, people queue for at least half an hour.