Thwack-thwack, thwack! Rafael Diaz hits the side of a wooden moon cake mold twice against his work surface, flips it over and hits it again so that the small, hefty cake pops right out.
A longtime employee at Chinatown’s Phoenix Bakery, Diaz’s regular duties usually have him decorating the strawberry-whipped cream layer cakes that the bakery is known for. This time of year, he’s shaping moon cakes for the annual Moon Festival, a harvest festival celebrated by the Chinese and Vietnamese dating 3,000 years to moon worship.
It takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar, which this year falls on Saturday. So on a recent weekday, Diaz and another employee, Yu Zhen Li, were making some of the 1,000 or so moon cakes that Phoenix will turn out this season.
At the center of the moon cake is the salted duck egg yolk, which is surrounded by a filling of black bean or lotus paste or a mixture of meat, dried fruit and nuts. It’s encased in a pastry shell, ideally just enough of it so that you can almost see through it to the filling.
In the Phoenix kitchen, Li measured out the filling on a scale, 5 1/4 ounces of a mixture including Virginia ham, barbecue pork, dried fruits, almonds and sesame seeds; it has to be the exact amount or it won’t fit in the mold.
The mixture is gathered into a ball and the preserved yolk is pressed into the top of it, positioned correctly so that it ends up in the center of the cake. When you cut the moon cake into quarters (it’s a dense pastry meant to be shared and eaten with tea), each person should get a part of the yolk.
The mixture is wrapped in a thin layer of Phoenix’s moon cake dough, made with a dark sugar syrup so it’s a burnished golden-brown once baked. Then it’s placed into a custom mold, carved with an insignia indicating the kind of filling.
The mark of a good moon cake maker is the facileness with which he removes the cake from its mold before baking.
“It’s a rhythm thing,” says head of production Youlen Chan, a member of the bakery’s founding family. “Boom-boom-boom! Twice on the side, once on top.”
His father, Lun Chan, Phoenix’s retired patriarch, was its original moon cake maker. Diaz says he learned the art of de-molding moon cakes from Lun.
Let’s hope it won’t soon be a lost art. Says Diaz: “I’m the only one who knows how to do it.”
Phoenix Bakery, 969 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 628-4642, www.phoenix bakeryinc.com.