Chinese mooncakes (月餅) are available in a bewildering variety of fillings. Some are simple, like the classic version with nothing more than mung bean paste (綠豆沙). Others are not. Flavored meats, preserved abalone, pine nuts and other exotic ingredients are sometimes used. A whole egg yoke was often included at the center of the cake representing the full moon, a symbol of the family unity and harmony that is such an important part of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節).
The festival falls on Sept. 30, but preparations for exotic new mooncakes to grace the event have been in the works for months. Major hotels and food chains have long been pushing the limits of what can be achieved to make their mooncakes stand out from the crowd, and have looked far beyond Asia for new inspiration.
Haagen Dazs ice cream mooncakes have long been famous for injecting a little color into the traditionally restrained mooncake color scheme. Traditional mooncakes have a brown chewy shell, sometimes bearing an imprint of various auspicious symbols, and while rich in cultural import, to modern tastes they do not seem particularly festive.
Ice cream mooncakes, which remain a popular item for Haagen Dazs in the run up to the Mid-autumn Festival, are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what food businesses aim to achieve in the creation of innovative mooncakes. Haagen Dazs has one line in which this pastry is replaced with crispy chocolate. Dark, milk and white chocolate are used, as are banana, strawberry and blueberry colored chocolates, which complement ice cream fillings that range from strawberry cheesecake to mango and macadamia.
But how is this different from a chocolate-coated Magnum Classic? It is the sort of question that people like Igor Macchia asks himself in the process of designing a brand new desert inspired by the mooncake tradition.
Macchia, the Michelin-starred chef of Grand Victoria Hotel’s (維多麗亞酒店) La Festa Italian restaurant, believes that “a traditional mooncake with an Italian taste would be totally wrong.” What he has sought to do is to “keep the concept but create something totally new.”
Macchia said he tasted a wide range of mooncakes as preparation for creating his own. Speaking with the Taipei Times last month, Macchia said he did not wish to replicate Chinese mooncakes, but wanted to take the idea inherent in the festive cake and create something that would not just meet local Taiwan celebratory requirements, but which could stand alone as a delicious and fascinating sweet that could appeal to diners in Taiwan, and also at his restaurant in Italy.
Macchia’s selection of mooncakes are created from a complex fusion of different types of chocolate, all sourced from the Valrhona label. While the use of such an esteemed, and expensive, brand of chocolate is nothing unusual at the culinary stratosphere in which he works, Macchia emphasized that the appeal of his mooncakes reside not just in the quality of the ingredients, but also in the careful blending of different types of chocolate to achieve subtly different effects. With flavors such as olive oil and salt, red wine and figs, and strawberries with balsamic vinegar, Macchia pushes against expectations, creating delightful surprises in taste and texture. The use of ingredients such as almond paste, Macchia said, had similarities to local ingredients such as lotus seed paste (蓮蓉), providing a textural as well as visual link with the traditional Chinese pastry.