The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

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Little by little, step by step

How I perfected making mooncakes over four years
Song Li
These mooncakes were designed in the shape of a gourd with auspicious words imprinted on top. In Chinese culture, gourds symbolize fortune and wealth and words mean good fortune and peace.

Wrap, press, repeat, wrap, press, repeat.

Over and over, mooncake after mooncake, I watch my mother’s delicate hands pull off the mold to reveal a perfect imprint every time.

She never messed up.

In awe, I ask her if I can try to make one too. But I can only stare as my creation turns into a jumbled mess, bearing no resemblance to the perfection I tried to imitate.

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‘I will try again,’ I think to myself. ‘I will get it right.’

Thinking back, she must have known that my 10-year-old self would have failed, but she said nothing, watching my clumsy hands produce mooncakes which were a mere mockery of her own.

Once the seasons cycle through, and the Mid-Autumn Festival rolls around, my mom begins making mooncakes again. Excitedly, I dart to join her, determined to master the mooncake this time.

Of course, it did not go as I expected. With not much having changed since the previous year, my first mooncakes turned out similarly horrible. But once again, my mom did not give up on me, coaching me through every step and modeling the process for me again and again.

I spent the weekend making batches of mooncakes, tired but determined not to let this go. It gave me a sense of accomplishment to see a row of mooncakes, misshapen, but mine nonetheless. I was one step closer to achieving perfection.

Every year since, my mother, sister and I have made mooncakes together, selling them in our community and donating our profits to various charities, like the Houston Food Bank and World Health Organization COVID-19 Response Fund. Over the next four years, I perfected the craft little by little, step by step.

Serena Li

The first, and simplest of all the steps, according to my mother, was making the dough. The most important ingredient here was the syrup, which would allow the dough to soften into a more desirable state after baking. My mother would spend hours by the stove stirring a pot as a sweet smell filled the entire house. I often wondered how she never tired.

My mother then watched over me as I carefully measured out the dough and lotus paste filling.
As per traditional mooncake recipes, the filling accounts for seventy percent of the mooncake while the dough only makes up thirty. This meant that the dough had to be carefully maneuvered to cover the filling without causing holes or rips, which was nearly impossible for me.

The unfinished mooncakes are then pressed with a mold, creating the beautiful design that they are famous for. Oftentimes, I would mess this step up, eternally the cause of my frustration. The pressure applied, duration held, and consistency of the dough all had to be perfect or the design would be destroyed.

Not even the baking process was simple. The mooncakes had to be carefully brushed with an egg wash halfway through to ensure a beautiful golden color, then left to cool and be sealed. I was nearly dead on my feet by the end of the day.

So if it wasn’t obvious enough, mooncakes are not easy to make.

Every step, each equally important, combined together to produce a piece of artwork. It is not a skill that one should be able to easily acquire. Despite this, I didn’t want to give up.

The first year that my mother and I began selling our homemade mooncakes to our community, 2020, was a failure for me. I struggled to create even a single perfect mooncake that matched my mother’s standards. Every one was flawed in some little way that was barely visible, yet meant so much to me.

In spite of my own turmoil, our sales had skyrocketed far past my expectations. When I heard that we received over 50 orders, totaling to over $200, I was sure it was impossible. But we managed to complete and deliver all of our mooncakes.

120 mooncakes are packaged and ready to be delivered to our customers’ houses. There are four different designs and two types of fillings. (Serena Li)

The next year was the exact opposite.

In my spare time, I researched other people’s tips and tricks and incorporated them into my own process. My improvement was evident as even my mother joked that I was as good as her.

It made me proud to know I had grown into someone she could trust, someone on the same level as her. She’d been the image of perfection in my mind for forever, and I strived to be someone like her.

However, my increased mastery of crafting mooncakes didn’t correlate with increased profits. We only made $88, a significant difference from the previous year.

By the third year, 2022, I felt confident in my abilities. I finally sat down to take a break after hours of work. But I had completely forgotten to set a timer for the mooncakes.

While I sat scrolling through my phone, the mooncakes sat in the oven, every passing second of oblivion sending them closer to ruin. By the time I remembered to check on them, they were completely overbaked and unsalvageable. The filling inside was dry and the edges were crumbling. The beautiful flower design had begun to fade.

I was devastated, but couldn’t even spare any emotions other than disappointment, since the mistake had been entirely my fault. So I quickly learned that you can never be perfectly good at something. Even three years of repetition had not saved me from carelessness.

This infographic displays how much profit we made each year. In 2020 and 2021, we donated to the WHO COVID-19 Response Fund, and in 2022 and 2023 we donated to the Houston Food Bank. (Infographic by Serena Li)

I swore I would never be so stupid again. Not only had I destroyed the mooncakes, I’d wasted time and supplies as well. In my mind, this one mistake had set me back several steps in my journey to perfection.

In 2023, we achieved overwhelming success, beyond what I could’ve imagined. With the support of our neighbors, we made over $400. Some of them had been supporting us since the very beginning, watching my growth through the eyes of my mooncakes.

Three days before the Mid-Autumn Festival, we drove to each and every one of our customers’ homes, dropping off their mooncakes and thanking them for their support. I was finally able to put faces to the names that matched every order.

Not only had we managed to donate over $1000 in four years, but I had also perfected the craft. If someone had told me five years ago that I would make over 500 mooncakes, I would’ve laughed. How unimaginable that would’ve been for 10-year-old me, who only wanted to prove to herself that she could succeed at something.

I wouldn’t call myself perfect but instead, I was satisfied. That was enough for me.

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  • S

    Song LiNov 17, 2023 at 1:47 pm

    Well done Serena! ? Your mooncakes were delicious. ?

  • S

    Sophia LiNov 6, 2023 at 9:42 pm

    This is a great story!! I loved how you described the intricacy of the mooncake making process

  • A

    Andrew LiuNov 6, 2023 at 8:14 pm

    Mooncakes are good

  • H

    Hanh NguyenNov 6, 2023 at 12:19 pm

    This story is so good! I’d love to try a mooncake!

  • C

    Claire BNov 5, 2023 at 4:14 pm

    Such a sweet story Serena 🙂 Your writing is vivid and the striving for perfection is so relatable! Next year I’ll have to buy one of your mooncakes to try one fs

  • H

    Helen BeebeNov 1, 2023 at 12:14 pm

    I love this so much!!

  • M

    MadduxNov 1, 2023 at 11:03 am

    These look so yummy! Thank you for this inspiring story!!