Last weekend, when we were at our friendly local Asian market to stock up on supplies for Family Cook Night, we noticed a large, prominent display at the front of the store, with a little crowd of people gathered around it. When I took a closer look, I saw that the shelves were loaded with beautifully decorated tins. Customers were scrutinizing the tins--picking them up, examining them, and then carefully choosing the design they liked best. I watched while an elderly Asian couple chose a red tin with gold lettering, and a young woman picked a black and red one. The sign above the display read "Moon Cakes" and I was completely intrigued.
I must have these, I thought to myself. Moon cakes! But when I looked at the price on the black and red tin the young woman had chosen it was $39.99. Forty dollars for a tin of cakes?!
"I wonder what moon cakes are all about," I said to L., who was standing next to me. My kid is a walking encyclopedia because he immediately launched into an explanation of the historical significance of moon cakes. His narration involved an emperor, some Mongolian people, some oppressed Chinese, and secret messages sent via the cakes. But all of that didn't explain why the moon cakes had to cost so much! So when we got home, I called up my sister-in-law, who is Chinese. While there is an ancient legend about moon cakes and it does involve secret messages and overthrowing tyrants, the Chinese buy the moon cakes to celebrate the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar cycle (August), which is traditionally a time to reflect upon those who are absent and living far away. You open up a tin of the cakes, watch the full moon, and think about the person or people you love doing the very same thing in some faraway place.
After I talked with my sister-in-law, my entire family grouped in front of my mom's computer in a noisy, chaotic clump, little niece and nephew and all, and we talked over Skype. Everyone was there, standing in the bedroom L. uses when we go home--the same bedroom that used to be my brother's so long ago, then my sister's after he went to college, then my son's when we visit--it's a strange thing. Everyone was there but me. I love how technology can bring people closer, I really do, but seeing my whole family there on the other end, all together, made me feel, well, a little left out. After we got off Skype, I wiped away some tears and told the kids I missed my family.
"We can make moon cakes," T. suggested, and so we did.
Real moon cakes are much more ornate, and the tops are browned and inscribed with Chinese lettering. But I found this kid-friendly recipe on the Internet, and T. and I whipped up a batch in no time. We put red bean paste in some of the cakes and black cherry jam in the others, because I wasn't certain if the kids would go for the red bean paste. (Red bean paste, if you don't know, is a bit like almond paste, but without the almond taste. It's sweet and thick and really good.)
(L. didn't want anything to do with the paste, but T. loved it. That's her little finger at the top of the picture, reaching into the bag for a taste.)
The cookies are like traditional thumbprint cookies, and T. made the thumbprints.
We baked them and ate several in all their buttery, flaky goodness. T. wanted to eat them on the porch in front of the moon, but it was 3:00 p.m. and buggy outside, so we ate them instead on the couch, and thought about the people we missed and loved so far away.