Auntie Jo's delightful jelly mooncakes
Taishi cakes, the predecessor of mooncakes, were present during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). For a long time in history, mooncakes have been created as an offering during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Although traditional baked mooncakes have been around for thousands of years, this symbolic mooncake making tradition has not stopped evolving.
The common traditional mooncakes include Cantonese-style mooncakes (golden-brown skin encasing a sweet filling), Shanghai mooncakes (crisp and crumbly shortcrust pastry skin encasing a sweet filling), Suzhou mooncakes (a crisp, flaky crust with a pork filling) and Teochew mooncakes (known as “thousand-layer mooncakes" – they have a crispy pastry skin with a sweet filling like taro paste). I am sure there could be others that I have yet to sample and experience.
The traditional flavours for the sweet filling include red bean, white lotus seed or taro pastes while there is a savoury filling of mixed nuts. With the current explosion of creativity, we even have flavours infused with matcha, pandan, dark chocolate, milk chocolate ganache, tiramisu, rum and raisins, brandy, salted caramel, cheese, Pu Er tea, Jasmine tea, coconut, durian, mango, jackfruit, campedak, dragon fruit, pink guava, passionfruit, raspberry, blueberry and lychee. Some have even gone as far as to add truffles and birds’ nests.
During the season, one can also buy ice cream mooncakes from Haagen Daz, miniature snow skin mooncakes, 3-D rose-shaped mooncakes, mochi mooncakes, mooncakes filled with crepes and jelly mooncakes. Let us take a closer look at the jelly mooncakes.
Jelly mooncakes are a work of art and cooks take great care to craft these delicate wonders. One such person is my dear Auntie Josephine, my Mum's sister-in-law. Auntie Jo, as we fondly call her, is a brilliant cook. I am an ardent fan of her Cantonese-style dishes like Yuen Tai (pig trotters) and drunken prawns. It was Auntie Jo who taught me how to make highly addictive corn flakes cookies (because one will not be able to stop eating them). Her Indonesian layer cake and jam tarts are out of this world as well. Auntie Jo is a very skilled cook, perfecting every dish and making them a real joy to savour.
Never resting on her laurels, she is quick to master new recipes expanding her repertoire of sublime dishes, cakes, pies and cookies. Auntie Jo enlisted herself in a cooking class to learn the art of making jelly mooncakes in 2005. Back then, jelly mooncakes were not in vogue as they are today. There were very few vendors available in the market producing them commercially. She mastered the art quickly and after experimenting with various flavours, decided to keep hers close to the traditional tastes. Her popular flavours included red bean, lotus, taro, chocolate and corn. Using quality ingredients, she would boil and grind the ingredients herself, ensuring that quality and taste were maintained every step of the way. The end result was nothing short of a masterpiece.
Although there was much work involved in making the jelly mooncakes, her pricing was kept reasonable and through the years, her supportive clientele grew in numbers.
In 2017, I received a box of Auntie Jo's jelly mooncakes delivered all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. I was thrilled with the delicate beauties that were too pretty to cut into. After taking some photographs, I savoured them with pure satisfaction. Every mouthful was delightful, knowing that they were crafted with love. In 2019, Auntie Jo decided to stop making them. Although saddened by the news, I am happy that I have managed to capture her jelly mooncakes on camera, preserving these masterpieces for posterity.
I have tasted many commercially-produced jelly mooncakes but none can compare with those made by Auntie Jo. Some are too sweet, some had a powdery (flour-like) aftertaste, while others had crazy colours that scream radioactive. Some had too much essence, other lacked substance and many were just rather disappointing.
My Mum and Auntie Jo have taught me that when it comes to cooking, preparing a meal done with love and good intentions are the priceless ingredients that will make your dishes memorable. Aunty Jo's jelly mooncakes have etched a permanent place in my heart.
Auntie Jo with daughter, Michelle and son, Lawrence (left), and with me (right).
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 10 September 2021