The Chinese answer to the American fruitcake is the mooncake--a rich fruit- and nut-stuffed pastry that appears during the annual Chinese Moon Festival.
Traditionally, the festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which would be October 3. But this year, several Chinatown organizations decided to move the celebration to this Sunday to coincide with the Los Angeles Festival.
Sunday's celebration will include a program of art and craft demonstrations, Chinese opera, classical dance, a lantern parade, a moon viewing ceremony and other activities at the Alpine Recreation Center/Castelar School on Yale Street between College and Alpine Streets in Chinatown from noon to 10 p.m.
And a lot of the mooncakes will come from Chinatown's Phoenix Bakery.
Mooncake baking won't get into high gear until mid-September--much of the Chinese community will still observe the conventional date. But Phoenix's Lun F. Chan said recently that his bakery has already been working hard to prepare for the early celebration.
Considerable skill is required to make a mooncake. Chan, who founded the bakery with his brother in 1938, demonstrated the technique for The Times last week.
The challenging part is molding the dough--a mixture of non-gluten flour and dark syrup--around the filling so that only a thin shell remains. Chan did this by twirling the stuffed cake in the palm of one hand, using his other hand to gradually force excess dough to the top. There it formed a peak, then extended in a long ribbon that he cut off and saved to wrap the next cake.
The fillings are carefully weighed so that the cakes will be standard in size. They also must fit the wooden molds in which they are shaped. Chinese characters carved into each mold imprint the top of the cake with the name of the bakery and indicate how many salted egg yolks it contains.
Most mooncake eaters prize the yolks--they are placed in the center of the filling so that each wedge of cake will contain a portion. Cakes typically contain one to three yolks, but there are also eggless cakes for those who prefer their filling straight.
The yolks come from duck eggs, which are imported from China, each coated with black clay. The preserving process colors the yolks orange, resembling the color of the moon as it appears on the horizon. The deeper the color the better the yolk, Chan said. The whites remain fluid. Chan discards them, but he says that in China they'd be sold for use in soups and other dishes.
The most ornate of the Phoenix Bakery fillings blends bits of Yunnan ham and barbecued pork with an assortment of nuts, seeds and candied fruits, such as wintermelon and kumquats. A variation on this combines coconut with the fruits and nuts. Sweetened mung bean paste and red bean paste colored black are other choices. But Chan said that the most popular filling is lotus paste.
During the festival season, the bakery will make 40,000 to 50,000 moon cakes. As a sideline, portions of dough will be pressed into molds with whimsical shapes--a mother pig with her brood of piglets, for instance, or a Chinese dog and a Buddha. Decorated with red food coloring and baked with a loop of red string attached, the cookies will go to children who accompany their parents to purchase mooncakes.
The Chinatown Moon Festival is one of the free "Around Town" events listed in the Los Angeles Festival program. It is sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, the Chinese Cultural and Community Center of Greater Los Angeles and the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.
To help defray expenses, Miriwa in Chinatown is hosting a fundraising banquet on Sunday, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 each. For further information on the Moon Festival, call (213) 281-7429.