Since the Western Zhou period (1045-771 BC) Chinese pastries and treats have
been part of the banquets enjoyed by emperors and their nobles, which later
expanded beyond the palaces during the Tang dynasty into tea houses where news,
entertainment, and tea were served with sweet and savory snacks. Happily, their
proliferation moved on to proletariat tables throughout China and its far-flung
diasporas where they are a welcome addition to the bakerdom world.
Today the general public is well versed regarding the standard dessert trio
appearing at the end of conventional Chinese restaurant meals: flakey custard tarts,
deep fried sesame balls, or the iconic fortune cookie (on special occasions almond
cookies might conclude an exceptionally festive dinner).
How is it then that author Kristina Cho’s Mooncakes & Milk Bread: Sweet and
Savory Recipes Inspired by Chinese Bakeries cites eighty (80!) recipes for Chinese
baked goods? The mind implodes at the bumper-flow of such a gathering of
goodies. As a serial frequenter of Chinatowns, I have rarely seen this bounty
unleashed in a single establishment’s inventory. “Bring it on” my innards
challenge my burgeoning outerwear.
For those puzzled by its title — Mooncakes and Milk Bread — Cho valued the
paradox created — the contrast between the two styles of baked goods — and stated,
“Mooncakes are very old world and traditional, and milk bread is newer, as are
many other recipes in the book.”
Her new work reveals what most frequenters of large Chinatowns have known for
decades: Chinese bakeries are bastions of a vast world of diverse delectables for
voracious appetites yearning to be fed.
The self-taught baker, whose blog EatChoFood (a play on a rocker’s command
using the insertion of her name) introduced American audiences to the flavors and techniques of Chinese-style baking, has produced a manual to inspire others to
make and enjoy the rich bounty of Middle Kingdom fare.
Rising to the unique challenge of writing the first book about Chinese baking, Cho
realized there would be a large audience that had never crossed the threshold of a
Chinese bakery. “Chinese bakeries . . . are not something new and trendy, but a
beautiful facet of Chinese American life. (They) have been around for a long time
and deserve time in the spotlight,” she posits. “Baking in America has been quite
Eurocentric, and I wanted to allow for another facet of baking to be in the
spotlight. . . . There are a billion recipes for chocolate chip cookies out there, but
you’d be hard-pressed to find things like a mooncake or a red bean swirl bun.”
According to Cho, “One of my biggest goals was to demystify Chinese baking for
the overall baking community.” Her vehicle, Mooncakes & Milk Bread, does
The author alters a number of basic bakery-style products with versions of her
own. She also delivers recipes that reflect her penchant for melding both cultural
appreciation and historic knowledge, stating “The Chinese palate tends to prefer
desserts that avoid cloyingly sweet treats. In Chinese baking, sweetness is often
derived from natural flavors.” Her Shiny Fruit Cream Cake, topped with fresh
fruit brushed with a simple sugar glaze generates memories of familiar traditional
In addition to fresh-from-the-oven baked goods, Cho notes that many Chinese
bakery products are steamed, deep fried or skillet seared since early Chinese
households were not equipped with ovens. The steamed Mai Lai Gow (Malay
Cake) recipe is a prime example of no-bake fare.
Cho’s Mooncakes provides uncomplicated interpretations of classic recipes for the
modern baker. Measurements are furnished in both U.S./Imperial and metric units.
Recipes are introduced with the intent to give a clear vision of what to expect from
one’s culinary labors: special equipment required, substitutions and omissions
possible, shelf-life guidelines, suggestions for adding one’s own bit of panache to
personalize a recipe. Information is given as to when foods are most likely to be
served: mooncakes for the Harvest Moon Festival; sticky rice wrapped in lotus
leaves (joong) for the Dragon Boat Festival; to warm you up during the Winter
Solstice in December, tang yuan (a sweet soup with glutinous rice balls filled with
red bean or black sesame seeds).
Aesthetically pleasing photos, shot by the multi-talented Cho, dominate this tour
de force masterwork. The well-organized author, a former architect/interior
designer, has drawn up a detailed diagram for the uninformed, starting with an
introduction to Chinatown’s Café Culture and bakery scene, ingredient definitions,
shopping at an Asian grocery store, and introducing well known bakeries, such As
Ray’s Café and Tea House in Philadelphia and San Francisco’s Eastern Bakery
(open since 1924).
This 274-page book has won the acclaim of stalwarts of the food industry and
those who rely on their insights and expertise. In 2022, Mooncakes was the James
Beard Award Winner in the category of Baking and Desserts, as well as the winner
for its Emerging Voice Books. It was also named One of the Ten Best Cookbooks
of the Year by the New York Times and New Yorker Magazine. In addition, Time
Out, Glamour and Taste of Home chose it as one of the Best Cookbooks of the
Mooncakes provides an excellent model in defining how a finished recipe should
be delineated – essential parts sequenced in logical stages. Chapters on drinks
(labeled Sips), Chinese Breakfast, and assembling your own box of goodies to
share, round out what is a remarkable publication. “Cookbook” is far too
pedestrian a word to describe what Cho has created. It is an excellent source for
the novice, competent or professional chef who is bent on extending or
revolutionizing one’s reach and range in the kitchen and/or dining room.
For those who routinely subject their cookbooks to battle zones in the foxholes of
their kitchens, Mooncakes is also available in a spiral bound version, minimizing
the chance of disintegrated torn or mangled pages.
I’ve reviewed many impressive publications on who-what-where-when-why
cooking over the years. Regarding Mooncakes, my rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (10
being “high”; 1 being “loser”) — it was a no-brainer conclusion. Holy Hom Bao,
Mooncakes is a standout 10! My critical advice: RUN — don’t walk — to pick up a
copy for yourself, a friend and/or family. You won’t be disappointed. And neither
will they be.
How Kristina Cho turned Her Hobby Food Blog
Into an Award-Winning Cookbook