Memories of 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 continued to evolve.
The common traditional mooncake varieties 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 (also known as “thousand-layer mooncakes" – they have a crispy pastry skin with a sweet filling like taro paste). There are undoubtedly more varieties that I have yet to sample and experience.
Traditional mooncake fillings include red bean, white lotus seed or taro pastes, as well as a savoury filling of mixed nuts. In recent times, creativity has led to a wide range of flavours including 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 incorporate luxurious ingredients like 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. Now, let us take a closer look at the jelly mooncakes.
Jelly mooncakes are a work of art and cooks who create these delicate wonders put great care and skill into their craft. One such person is my dear Auntie Josephine, who happens to be 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 her highly addictive cornflake cookies; they are so good 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. In 2005, Auntie Jo enrolled in a cooking class to learn the art of making jelly mooncakes. Back then, jelly mooncakes were not in vogue as they are today. There were very few vendors available in the market producing them commercially. Quickly mastering the craft, Auntie Jo experimented with various flavours and 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.
Despite the labor-intensive process, Auntie Jo kept her pricing 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 which seemed almost too pretty to cut into. After taking some photographs, I indulged in them with pure satisfaction. Every mouthful was a delight, 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 edible masterpieces for posterity.
I have tasted many commercially-produced jelly mooncakes but none can compare with Auntie Jo's creations. Some are too sweet, some have a powdery (flour-like) aftertaste, while others have crazy colours that scream radioactive. Some are overwhelmed by essence, other lack substance and many are just rather disappointing.
My Mum and Auntie Jo have taught me that in cooking, the priceless ingredients of love and good intentions are what make dishes truly memorable. Aunty Jo's jelly mooncakes have left an indelible mark on 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