Monday, September 10, 2007

Show and Tell.

Yesterday, my two sets of parents came up to have a birthday dinner with my son, Isaac. My dad spent last week in China on business. He's been there several times and always has interesting things to tell us all about after his trips. Since gift giving is a very important things in that culture he also often brings home interesting or unusual items he has been given. He also often bestows upon me all sorts of special teas, which are frequent gift items. Right now I have about 8 various sized tins and boxes of Chinese teas on my counter because Dad is not much of a tea drinker. Yesterday Dad also brought along a fancy box containing moon cakes and tea. He said all he knew was that they were some sort of seasonal item and considered a delicacy.

We had dinner and birthday cake and after all that was cleared I made a pot of tea and served the moon cakes. Since we were enjoying special Chinese treats I used the Chinese tea set we were given for our wedding. One of our groomsmen had spent 4 months in Beijing right before our wedding and carried the box containing our tea set on his lap for the whole flight because he was afraid to check or stow it for fear of breakage.

Here are the 4 moon cakes with my tea set and the presentation box they came packaged in. Since we can't read Chinese we had no idea what was in the cakes except that Dad had been told there were two kinds, one was sweet and the other had meat. Here is one up close...

Here is the inside of the moon cakes. We all figured the one on the right was nuts of some sort and I guessed the one on the left was duck egg. The consistency of the one on the left was firm enough to hold shape but you could have spread it over toast or something if you wanted to. It was also very sweet. I preferred the one with nuts but my dad and Diana seemed to prefer the one with duck egg. The tea was very pale and had a very mild flavor but was a lovely compliment to the cakes.

After our little cultural experience I was compelled by curiosity to know more so I googled 'Moon cakes' and found out they are eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is linked to the Chinese moon goddess of immortality. I had guessed correctly about the one containing duck egg. One or more salted yolks are put inside the moon cake to symbolize the full moon. Other traditional fillings can be lotus seed paste, sweet bean paste, jujube paste or, as we tasted ourselves, 5 kernels (walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame, almonds, candied winter melon, dried ham, or rock sugar can be included). Apparently, the characters on top are symbols for longevity or harmony as well as indicating the contents and perhaps the bakery name. I also found out moon cakes had been used as puzzles to hide secret messages during the Han Chinese revolt that occurred during the Ming Dynasty. The four cakes would be cut into quarters and rearranged to give the message and then could obviously be eaten to destroy the message. Tea and espionage anyone?

So allow me now to share MY family's tradition and culture. The tradition in our house for birthdays is that the honoree gets to choose the dinner menu and what sort of cake they want me to make. Isaac wanted baked ravioli for dinner but said he didn't care what kind of cake he had. I decided to make Funny Cake, which is a Pennsylvania Dutch treat. It seems to be less common in Lancaster County, which is the most famous PA Dutch region. Most of the folks I have met from there have never heard of it but where I grew up in Berks County it's more well known. Some people are known to use lemon instead of chocolate. I find that rather disturbing. The recipe I use was my great grandmother's and it makes 3 cakes. The proportions in the recipe are such that they don't easily divide to make a smaller batch. Besides, it is so yummy one is never quite enough.

The Pennsylvania Dutch, who are really Germans but the English settlers misunderstood when the Germans called themselves Deutsch, are fond of putting cake batter into pie crust for dessert. If you've ever had a shoo fly pie, that is the most famous example of this phenomenon. Funny cake starts with the pie crust (And I'd never dream of using a store bought crust!). You then pour the cake batter into the unbaked crust before pouring a chocolate sauce mixture on top of the batter. As it bakes, the chocolate sinks though the batter to make the layer on the bottom and leave swirly patterns on top. Some people try to float the batter on top of the sauce before baking. This is an abomination. Please try to remember if you attempt the recipe.

FUNNY CAKE (yield 3)

3 unbaked pie crusts (sorry, some things have to remain a family secret, use your own recipe)


1 1/2 Cups sugar

1/2 Cup solid shortening

2 eggs

2 1/2 Cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

-Cream together shortening and sugar, cream in the eggs, beat in milk and dry ingredients alternately. Divide into the 3 pie crusts.

Chocolate Sauce

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup Cocoa powder

1 1/4 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

-Mix all ingredients well. Divide by pouring over the three cakes until the top of the batter is just covered. Bake at 400 F for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Fress (eat) up now!


KFarmer said...

Great story on the moon cakes~ how interesting :)

& thanks for the new recipe. I'm always looking for something different. It looks yummy :)

A very happy birthday to young master Isaac!

TLP said...

Great info on the China stuff. Really enjoyed it.

You're right about South Central PA not knowing about Funny Cake. Never heard of it. I don't like shoo fly pie, but your pie/cake has chocolate, so it's bound to be good!

MONA said...

wow! what a great party!

I use the same recipe to bake my cake.I add eggs one at a time and if you stir them in one direction they come out softer and fluffier. I use chocolate sauce and sometimes coffee sauce for a variation. & then sometimes I use almond essence and top the entire thing with blanched and vertically halved almonds...scores of them to cover the entire surface.

Try mixing the vanilla and strawberry essence & you get a wonderful new flavour. Plus you can add a few real strawberries too.

lime said...

kfarmer, glad you enjoyed. maybe you can share a post and let us know how it goes if you make the funny cake. i'd love to know!

tlp, thanks. glad you enjoyed it too. i was wondering if you'd heard of funny cake or not.

mona, what tume did you say dessert at your house would be served?

Gawpo said...

I'm groovin' on the cobalt decal designs on the porcelain. If you look for them very carefully, you can usually find the seams of the decals. Unless the patterns are hand painted, you can usually find the seams. Good hunting.

lecram said...

Mooncake festival was one of my favorite times growing up as a kid because it involved lanterns! All us kids in the neighborhood would parade up and down the streets when the sun went down with them... plus there was mooncake to eat!

I think getting to choose the menu of the day is a great tradition. I think your boy chose well. A big Happy Birthday to him!

S said...

We love to get moon cakes in Chinatown in SF...most of the kind they sell there are sweet and look like a ball, no designs on em.....

Its about time you coughed up that pie/cake recipe again.
I have made it people, from Limes very recipe, and its so good you just have to try it to believe it!

S said...


lime said...

gawpo, oooh very cool. i had no idea. i will have to start searching!

lecram, oh i love the idea of the lanterns. that must have been such a pretty thing to see and so fun to do.

s, thanks for the independent verification of deliciousness and for the birthday greetings.:)

snowelf said...

Hi Lime!!

Many happy b-day wishes to Issac!! :)

That espionage moon cake background is really fascinating. I have never even heard of moon cakes before you blogged about them. And thank goodness I read this AFTER I went to the grocery store. ;)

Happy Monday :)


Seamus said...

It's not even lunch yet and I'm starving!!! ;)

Charles said...

Wow. The Funny cake sounds so good, too bad I don't have enough mouths in my apartment to make it worth making. Feel free to give recipes anytime. mmm.

bsoholic said...

Your funny cakes looks more delicious, though interesting story on the mooncakes.

Breazy said...

The moon cakes are very pretty, as is your tea set.

I might have to try the funny cake some day because it sounds like something my kids would love, actually I might let my youngest daughter bake them, she likes to bake.

Have a good week!

Cooper said... much to comment upon...
1) As a Jersey boy my first exposure to shoo-fly pie was at a Dutch Pantry on 11/15 in Shamokin Dam while making the senior high school college trek to Susquehanna. It was a instant sugar high and I assume was probably not up to snuff - I mean it WAS The Dutch Pantry after all.
2) Berks County? Birdsboro? West Reading? Wernersville? my curiosity is piqued....
3) The recipe looks great - will add it to my list of desserts to try - only up to about 1,726 so
4) Happy Birthday to Junior Lime !!!

Pauline said...

The moon cakes are very interesting and your cake looks delicious, I may try making that. Happy Birthday to Isaac.

Jocelyn said...

Listen, beyotch, I'm going to need you to cough up the family pie crust recipe.

Honest to Betty Crocker, I view one's pie crust as a measure of his/her character. My husband's is divine. Mine has, *cough cough*, character.

Do tell: you use butter, right? Not shortening?

Hey, when we got married, one of my friends carried some plates all the way from Japan on his lap, not checking them for fear they'd break! We're Asian endowed.

Or whatever.

lime said...

snow, can you see mission impossible 4 involving moon cakes?

seamus, i made myself hungry too

charles, invite some friends over. it's worth it.

bs, no offense to the chinese, but i have to agree with you.

breazy, let me know how they turn out if you try them

cooper, shoo fly pie is an instant sugar rush in any form. oh my word! you KNOW berks cawnty!

pauline, i hope you enjoy!

jocelyn, i fully appreciate your perspective on pie crust because store bought ones are indication of serious lack of character. i cannot divulge my secrets in so public a place as a blog but look closely at the picture. do you see all the flaky goodness in the pie pan? my pie crusts are flakier than peewee herman. and take notice of the hand crimped edges on that crust,nothing mechanical there, those fluted edges bear the fingerprints of lime. your friend carried japanese plates on his lap...the similarities between us continue to astonish me. was his name rod serling by chance?

Anonymous said...

the cake looks yummy.:)

david mcmahon said...

Looks like a great feast. Loved the pictures.

However, my preference would be Darjeeling tea - because I went to school in Darjeeling!



Moosekahl said...

I'll take one piece of funny cake and you can have my portion of the duck egg filled moon cake! Duck egg and cake shouldn't go in the same sentence :) The tea set though is beautiful. Looks like a fine celebration. Happy Birthday Isaac!

~Tim said...

It all looks yummy!

My Tai Chi class always celebrates the Autumn and Spring Festivals and Chinese New Year.

I'll have to give the Funny Cake a try.

M said...

Happy Birthday Isaac!

lime said...

tc, thanks for the compliment and the greeting:)

david, ah yes, well your preference is certainly to be understood ;)

moosekahl, hahaha, very generous of you to swap the duck egg like that.

tim, that sounds like a fun time

m, thanks for the regards to the boy:)

MONA said...

I came back to wish a belated HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ISSAC!

Cosima said...

Mmmm... yam cha. The tea set and moon cakes look lovely. But I have to admit that the duck egg ones are not my thing. I guess I have too much of a Western palate for them.


lime said...

mona, thank you, dear

cosima, i agree. they were interesting to try but if i never eat another duck egg moon cake i won't feel terribly deprived either. thanks for the greetings

RennyBA said...

Sorry I'm late, but belated Happy Birthday all the way from Norway to Isaac anyway:-)

SignGurl said...

Weird! I swear I left a comment yesterday about the duck egg. Hmm...

MIke Kilgore said...

PA Dutch and no shoefly pie recipe? Jeez, whats next, no fastnachts?

MIke Kilgore said...

Just noticed you're from Berks-I'm in Flying Hills...

lime said...

renny, thanks for the greeting

signgurl, others have been telling me blogger eats their comments too

mike, spell shoo fly pie right ;) and not to worry, i make fastnachts. i live for them! flying hills, western end of the county?

MIke Kilgore said...

Yep, Rt 10 on the way towards Morgantown. SO busted on that SHOO-fly pie!

G-Man said...

I must be getting OLD!!!
I missed a Limey Food Post?
God...I suck!!

lime said...

mike, small world! misspelling forgiven ;)

g-man, i was taken aback, but you don't suck!

Liquid said...


Charles in HK said...

Next time your dad goes to China please tell me... I'll send home a figt for you too... if he went the week you said he did then I was also in Beijing at the same time!

Charles in HK said...

figt = gift