Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, aka time to eat mooncake

Growing up, I had no idea what Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was, but I did know that at around the same time of year every autumn, I could expect to eat moon cakes. Around September of every year, my grandma would buy boxes and boxes of Cantonese style moon cakes as gifts for family and friends. In return, we (surprise surprise) also received endless boxes of moon cakes, as well. I never understood the cultural importance of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival then. I just enjoyed eating the moon cakes. Since our family is Cantonese, I was really only ever exposed to Cantonese style mooncakes at home. It wasn’t until I was in college when I realized that there are many regional differences across not only China, but different parts of Asia, for mooncakes. Just a couple weeks ago, I finally had Thai style moon cakes, which are really more like mini round flaky pastries with a filling. And apparently, Shanghainese moon cakes are similar to these Thai ones, as well! I feel like I’m always learning new things about my culture and variations of the food I grew up eating.

It wasn’t until college that I officially learned what “Mid-Autumn Moon Festival” even was. Historically, the festival marked the time of the year, in autumn, when families would gather to enjoy the fruitful reaping of rice and wheat, and they would mark this with food offerings made in honor of the moon. The day that Mid-Autumn Moon Festival falls is always an evening of a full moon. So today, families will typically gather and have a delicious feast. And at some point of the day, they will cut moon cakes into small pieces and eat them together with tea. The moon is a symbol of harmony and unity, and so it’s considered auspicious to eat moon cake during this time of year. Moon cakes are always round, just like the moon (not unique, but you get the idea). Families eating moon cake during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival is basically signifying that their family is unified and complete.

Since my grandma died, our family never really did anything for Mid-Autumn Moon Festival other than buy moon cakes around the same time each year. But I would like for Kaia to understand the cultural significance of these Chinese holidays since they are part of her culture. This year, for the first time, I actually went down to Chinatown specifically to buy moon cakes, specifically ones that I special ordered via email from Kopitiam, a Malaysian cafe/restaurant that was making snow moon cakes based on demand. I ordered five: two durian, one taro, one black sesame, and one white lotus seed paste (the last one is the most traditional Cantonese filling, and my favorite one growing up that I was exposed to).

Snow moon cakes, in the last several years (as long as I am aware), have become all the rage during Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. They’re basically like the modernized version of moon cakes: they have the same round shape, the same beautiful molds, but instead of a shortening or butter-based crust on the outside, snow moon cakes have a “shell” that is made of mochi or glutinous rice flour. They are instant eye candy and are just stunning to look at. And the moon cakes that are being made by places like Kopitiam — you know for a fact that they’re not taking any shortcuts or using artificial anything. I cut two, the durian and the taro, and Chris and I shared them. I offered a bite to Kaia given the holiday, though I’d normally never give her anything with added sugar. Initially, she seemed intrigued, but when she got close enough and watched us eat, she said she didn’t want any. It’s okay: I still want her exposed to these things, and at some point one day, she will be tempted.

Office pumpkin carving

I love pumpkin carving in the autumn. Ever since I realized that using a (very dangerous) kitchen knife was not what everyone else was using to carve their pumpkins, and that pumpkin carving tools that were made kid-safe (e.g. easy for any dummy to use) were readily available (and for cheap!), I embraced the art of pumpkin carving. The last time I remember actually doing it was at my last company, and so when I heard we would be doing it today as a culture-building activity, I immediately cleared my calendar and jumped on it. In recent years, my favorite pumpkins have always been the happy ones. There are enough scary things in the world (particularly when it comes to politics in this country for the last couple of years), so I would prefer that my jack-o-lanterns be cheerful and bring delight. It was my first time picking a design that required shading (really, “shaving” the pumpkin skin for some different color tones), and it took almost an hour, but it really turned out looking quite attractive and spot on based on the image I copied and free-handed from a quick internet search. My jack-o-lantern has huge eyes, eyebrows, a massive smile, some pointed buck teeth, plus two little dimples! Needless to say, I was pretty proud of my carving work.

Today was likely my favorite day in the office in a long, long time. It was definitely the best work day this calendar year for sure — productivity at its all-time peak!

Autumn flavors

When the autumn comes, other women in New York get excited about what is arguably the most popular season for fashion — the fall. I guess that makes sense since New York Fashion Week happens in September, and it’s a time when you can do more texturing and layering with clothes to show off your fashion creativity. I, on the other hand, have never liked dressing for the fall, and have borderline dreaded the changing of the seasons. I like to dress for summer because I can dress light. I can pick one dress and a pair of sandals and be done. I like to dress for winter (well, not really, but it’s simple) because I wear more layers, a thick coat, and hats, scarves, and gloves — it’s very easy to think about. All of that is straightforward. Fall is not straightforward. Some days are over 75 degrees F in the fall. Other days barely clear 40. Today was pouring rain but humid as hell. What are you supposed to wear in situations like this? Some people wear mini skirts with warm suede boots… in rainy, windy weather. How do people do this and actually feel comfortable? It’s boggled my mind for years. Dressing in the fall always leaves me feeling awkward. I don’t know if my clothes look right together. Sometimes I feel over dressed. Other days, I feel under dressed (and definitely am because I am freezing). Fashion will never be my thing.

But what I have adapted very well to while living in the northeast are the flavors of autumn and the plethora of seasonally spiced items available at the farmers’ market and pretty much every grocery store: over 50 varieties of autumn/winter squash are available at the farmer’s market. So far this season, I’ve cooked the always-present butternut squash and the denser and sweeter kabocha squash. I can pick up my favorite Adirondacks pumpkin ice cream, made locally, at Whole Foods or Fairway. I can get endless organic pumpkin, fresh or canned, any time I’d like. Brussel sprouts are in season for roasting. And it’s also peak apple season here, which means I can buy my favorite variety that is only available from September through October — my beloved Honey Crisp. Apple cider is readily available everywhere you go, as are apple cider donuts. And I can’t forget about persimmons, the naturally cinnamon-like fruit that exists in nature.

That’s what autumn is really about to me. And it also reminds me that Christmas is just right around the corner.

Pumpkin Bread with Cranberries and Walnuts

One early evening this September I stepped outside, took a deep breath, and inhaled a familiar aroma that I hadn’t been acquainted with since this time last year. A feeling of excitement came over me as I continued to walk up Fifth Avenue, and I realized that this certain smell was autumn.

What does that mean – to smell like autumn? It’s hard to verbalize, but it smells light, cool, and crisp, as though the air has gradually calmed down from exposure to the summer sun’s bright rays. It is redolent of the leaves changing from deep and bright greens to warm red orange and amber shades, and it is aromatic of something that is slightly toasty and nutty, yet elusive in some way.

Autumn in the Northeast is completely unlike what I was used to growing up in San Francisco. A San Francisco autumn was unremarkable; the idea of leaves changing color was completely novel to me when I moved to the Boston area in 2004. I went to school at one of the most beautiful college campuses in the area and was able to fully experience a real New England autumn complete with Harry Potter-like Gothic-Georgian architecture in the background. The leaves slowly but surely changed color. I had no idea that a green leaf could turn into a deep magenta or purple shade, or that the same leaves that were orange could also become yellow before they crisped up and became brown. It was as though every day when I walked outside, I was constantly stunned by endless transformations and beauty.

Throughout the last seven years, I’ve watched with wonder as I’ve passed children in parks embracing autumn’s arrival. The glee with which they delight in autumn has never failed to bring a smile to my face – the way they thrash around in the leaves, rolling in them, tossing them up with their hands and kicking them and crunching them. I’m honestly not sure what warms me more – seeing the kids’ carefree delight or observing the parents watch their children, realizing how amazing it is to derive joy from life’s simple pleasures. Many times, I’ve been tempted to join in on the fun and jump up and down in the leaves with them, but then the self conscious adult side of me takes over and I decide that it wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do.

I’ve spent the last few months experiencing autumn in urban areas in New York like Union Square, Central Park, and Madison Square Park, but have also been able to see it by leaving the city and going hiking in Mohonk Preserve and wandering around the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Autumn in the Northeast is the most spectacular when you are outside of the city and completely immersed in nature. The few times I have left, it’s also helped me clear my head temporarily and just think about two of the simplest yet most complex things – love and life itself.

I always want to say that autumn is my favorite season, not just for that amazing smell that fills my nostrils as soon as September hits, and not just for the dramatic foliage, but also because it signifies the beginning of the holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – and the traditions I embrace each year. Carving jack-o-lanterns, cutting up different types of squash for soup, getting together with family and friends for extravagant and gluttony turkey meals, decorating Noble Fir trees with my newest and oldest Christmas ornaments, and making egg nog and holiday cookies; it’s everything I love about life condensed into three short months of the year. If we just added some sun and warmth, it really would be the most perfect time of the year (I am slightly conflicted, though, because I also love watching the snow fall and lightly dust itself onto the city around me).

Autumn also means that I can get back to my favorite place in the house, the kitchen, and begin baking again. I bake the most during the autumn and winter, and one of the things I’ve been making without fail for the last four years has been pumpkin bread.

The spice combination in this bread – cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, combined with cranberries and toasted nuts, is one of the best ways to welcome autumn back into our lives. That spicy smell wafting through my apartment just conjures up all of the memories I have of every autumn I’ve spent on the East Coast.

Pumpkin bread is a really simple quick bread to make. Canned, unsweetened pumpkin is readily available at almost any grocery store, and I can speak from experience when I say that cutting up, pureeing, and straining a real sugar pumpkin for your pumpkin bread or pie is not really worth the effort. The taste will be exactly the same, so you should save yourself some trouble and just buy the canned stuff. The canned stuff is really good, so there’s no reason to dismiss it.

I always like to add either dried cranberries and/or toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans to my pumpkin bread. Both dried cranberries and toasted nuts always remind me of the autumn, and what’s better than making an autumn sweet bread taste even more like autumn?

I got this recipe from the resident director at my dorm in college. He loved to bake and cook, and in the autumn, he made several loaves of this pumpkin bread and shared it with all of us. It was love at first bite – I immediately asked if he’d be so generous as to share the recipe with me, and share he did. Although I’m no longer in touch with him, his baking legacy lives on with me and everyone else I love who gets to benefit from the fruits of my autumn baking.

Pumpkin Bread with Cranberries and Walnuts

Adapted from the 2005-2006 Stone Davis Resident Director’s recipe collection

  • 2 C. sugar
  • 1 C. vegetable oil (canola or corn)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 C. cooked/canned unsweetened pumpkin
  • 3 C. flour
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. cloves (optional)
  • 4 C. dried cranberries
  • 1.5 C. toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the sugar and vegetable oil in a large mixing bowl; mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Combine the all of the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Mix the pumpkin into the egg mélange, and when combined, gradually add in all of the dry mixture. Stir in the cranberries and nuts. Put into two greased loaf pans. Bake the loaves for 1 hour.