(Bloomberg) -- Mooncake season is in full swing with the fast-approaching Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept. 29. The delectable, calorie-packed cakes (a small one can weigh in at almost 1,000 calories) are a key treat, with more extravagant (and extravagantly packaged) versions from luxury hotels and top restaurants selling out early—even with boxes costing HK$1,328 ($170) or more.
Traditional recipes use a molded pastry dough filled with dense sweetened lotus seed paste and a salted duck egg yolk (or two) tucked inside to symbolize the full moon. More modern iterations have updated the 3,000-year-old delicacies with an ever-widening range of fillings and flavorings–chocolate, all manner of fruits, nuts, gooey “lava” centers, even ice cream and caviar. “Snow skin” mooncakes dispense with the baked crust altogether, using instead a bouncy mochi-like rice flour wrapper that’s kept chilled.
Bloomberg Pursuits invited chef Vicky Lau of Hong Kong’s two-Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room to help us taste-test through 14 different luxury and mass-market brands–some still available for last-minute shoppers. Most mooncakes chosen were egg custard style, a local hero variety.
The Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel invented the custard mooncake in 1986: Its novel shortbread cookie crust and smooth filling immediately becoming a sensation for its buttery, rich flavors. Mooncake fans tend to divide squarely in either classic or custard-style camps.
As to what makes a standout mooncake? Lau says she looks for a nicely browned pastry that’s not too crumbly (aka dry), and no artificial smells that’d indicate essence oils are added instead of real flavorings. The taste should be smooth, not too sweet, with a balance between the sweetness and the saltiness, she proclaims.
“That balance is the essence of the mooncake,” says Lau.
For her own mooncake collection, Lau and her restaurant Ān Soy partnered with vegetarian kitchen Esca to produce soy mooncakes with liquid black sesame filling and osmanthus salted egg soy financiers, or little cakes.
To ensure that the tasting was blind, we carefully cut slices of each mooncake to obscure any characters or branding visible on the festive tops and arranged them on numbered plates. We also hid the elaborate, commemorative boxes from Lau, so she wouldn’t know where they were sourced from.
Many calorie-rich bites and sips of palate-cleansing tea later, here are the surprising results.
Bottom of the Bunch
Duddell’s Lava Cream Custard MooncakesHK$438 for a box of 6
The most shocking result of of our test, given that the high-class Cantonese cooking at Duddell’s has earned the place a Michelin star. On looks alone, the supremely sexy packaging would make a gorgeous gift, whereas the cakes themselves were “a bit dry” and “on the crumbly side,” said Lau. “I also look for sweetness and the salty balance between the paste and the egg yolk, and I don't feel this is very balanced. But mainly it's got an artificial taste.”
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Dang Wen Li by Dominique Ansel Jade Rabbit Deluxe Mooncakes HK$498 for a box of 6
Famed pastry chef Dominique Ansel might be the inventor of the Cronut, but mooncakes, here in classic and Earl Grey custard flavors from his Dang Wen Li bakeshops, are not his specialty. “Underbaked,” said Lau of the pale dough. “It’s just kind of pasty.”
Hyatt Centric x Lee Keung Kee Egg Waffles MooncakesHK$328 for a box of 6
The partnership with North Point’s famous gai daan jai (egg waffle) shop fell short on its promise of bringing the flavors of the classic street snack to the mooncake–in fact “there’s not a lot of flavor” at all, said Lau, asking, “is it a dairy free?” Maybe the packets of peanut butter and condensed milk that were included to pour on top would have helped if they weren’t so gimmicky. “Just save it for breakfast,” she sniffed. “I don’t need it for a little cake.”
Skip If You’re Counting Calories
The Peninsula Boutique Mini Egg Custard MooncakesHK$448 for a box of 8
Another major upset given the Peninsula is the go-to choice for name-brand custard mooncakes and sells hundreds of thousands of the pastries a season. But the skimpy amount of filling and flavor left Lau unimpressed: “It’s quite dry. Nothing interesting.” Better to opt for the originals, perhaps, still handmade by chefs in the hotel’s Spring Moon restaurant ( HK$638 for 8) instead of the Boutique’s factory-baked wares.
Fortnum & Mason MooncakesHK$688 for a box of 4, plus tea cups and loose tea selections
The storied British tea merchant’s Mid-Autumn infused treats didn’t move the needle with their overly dry, crumbly custard leaving Lau flat. “I prefer something that's more smooth. I think it's missing fat.” As for the signature flavoring? “I can taste Earl Grey distinctively. What tea is this one?” she asks, eating the other flavor. “Nothing too much. I’m not quite sure.”
Rú Mini Lava Egg Custard MooncakesHK$368 for a box of 6
Nina Hospitality, a local chain of hotels and serviced apartments, also has a string of bakeries and restaurants. The mooncakes from Rú, its flagship restaurant, struck squarely in the middle of the road: “This is okay,” said Lau upon tasting. “It’s a bit average though. It’s not underbaked. And it’s quite even the custard, with a thin crust.”
Rosewood Hong Kong Legacy House Mini Egg Custard MooncakesHK$468 for a box of 6
The newly anointed No. 2 hotel in the world offered various gift boxes with a variety of mooncake styles such as traditional double-yolk lotus seed as well as smoky lapsang souchong tea-infused treats–the “Witty Moon” gift box we received (HK$988) even included a porcelain plate. The Legacy House custard mooncake, though, didn’t measure up. “It’s bit dry,” said Lau, with “a little bit of a powdery taste.” The lighter color also made her wonder if they pulled back on the amount of salty egg yolk in the recipe. “Maybe they’re going for no salty egg yolk, but it’s not a very balanced piece.”
Lune de Blossom Lava MooncakesHK$526 for a box of 8
Topped with a pretty peony blossom pattern, and with both salted egg yolk and coconut milk in the filling, the handmade lava mooncakes ooze when cut: “Coffee, interesting!” said Lau, of the caramel coffee slice, and praised the lava effect of the classic custard. “It’s very liquid.” Although, she hedged a bit and maintained, “I feel like I can taste that these are a little lower cost to make. But if it’s cheaper, I think it’s quite good for its category.”
Conrad Mini Musang King Durian MooncakesHK$488 for a box of 8
One whiff was all it took to know the five-star hotel’s Golden Leaf restaurant used real puree from the highly prized musang king Malaysian cultivar of the spinky, stinky, love-it-or-hate-it durian fruit. Lau fell into the love it category calling the new-to-2023 mooncake “quite good and moist. It has some actual durian taste. It’s not artificial at all.” As for the bad? The filling pulled away from the crust during baking, leaving unsightly gaps. “Fruit will lose its moisture, so there should be something in between to cover it.”
Lady M Moonglow Mini Custard MooncakesHK$688 for a box of 6
“Maybe for kids,” Lau said of the multicolored mooncake trio from the trendy Japan-meets-France bakeshop with a global footprint (it’s actually based in New York). She praised the super-smooth custard of all three flavors with the yuzu milk custard flavor being the standout: “The citrus really cut the fattiness, and it’s quite refreshing to eat.” The lychee rose meanwhile was just “okay” while the matcha pandan had a little bit of a “weird” taste. “It’s not really going well with the paste inside.”
The Merchants Signature Mooncake SetHK$480 for a box of 4
Chef Lau admits she isn’t a fan of Suzhou-style mooncake dough which has a crispy, papery, bun-like character: “You can’t even eat it. When you cut it, it’s too flakey.” But trying the new-to-the-city offering from the Merchants, an opulent Shanghainese restaurant that opened this spring, she looked past that to give a thumbs-up to the flavors of the salted egg yolk and lotus seed paste–although dinged it overall for being skimpy with the latter.
Imperial Patisserie Lava MooncakesHK$368 for a box of 6
The dark horse surprise of the tasting were two free-flowing lava mooncakes from ubiquitous and heavily advertised mall chain Imperial Pastisserie. ( Chef Yip Wing Wah, co-creator of the original egg custard mooncake back in 1986, is on the payroll so all that industrial R&D has apparently paid off.) “The black sesame is a standout,” said Lau, who was able to overlook them being too sweet. “It’s got some, like, green [mung] bean paste taste that blends quite well with the black sesame. And because it’s liquid on the inside, it’s quite moist.”
Four Seasons Mini Egg Custard MooncakesHK$568 for a gift set
“One of the best,” said Lau of the custard treats in the iconic hotel’s new mooncake gift set, which also included lotus paste varieties (5 cakes total) and a selection of tea. “It’s a good size and the pastry is thin. You see a bit of, like, burning browning on the top, so it’s very naturally baked. The inside has a lot of salted egg yolk taste, and it’s blended in and not too heavy.” It sold out from tasting to press time, but their famed and preservative-free Lung King Heen toasted pine nut-specked cream custard mooncakes (HK$578) are still in stock.
Island Shangri-La Summer Palace Red Bean Paste Mooncakes With Rare 80-Year Dried Tangerine PeelHK$1,328 for a box of 8
Despite the mouthful of a product name, it took chef Lau barely a nibble to proclaim it a standout. “This one has chenpi, the mandarin peel–and it’s a good mandarin peel. You can taste it.” The most expensive mooncake we tested had a superior filling-to-crust ratio of red bean paste as well as a thin and gorgeous lacquer-like crust (to say nothing of the purple presentation box). As the most traditional recipe this round, it has set the bar if we go down that road of options next Mid-Autumn.
--With assistance from Rebecca Sin.
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