Tomorrow is Chuseok (추석), Thanksgiving Day in Korea (August 15th by the lunar calendar). Along with 설날 (seol nal; New Year's Day, January 1st by the lunar calendar), Chuseok is one of the two most celebrated holidays in Korea.
Also known as Hangawi (한가위) and Gabe (가배), Chuseok (추석; 秋夕) literally means 'the autumn evening.' The brightest, most beautiful moonlight is what Chuseok is also known for, as the day also falls on a full moon day. It is the day of family gatherings, thanksgiving to ancestors in the ceremony called cha rye (차례), enjoying the food made with new crops and seasonal ingredients. Taro soup (토란탕; to ran tang) and various jeon (전; savory pancakes) are popular, but songpyeon (송편; half-moon shaped rice cake) has come to represent Chuseok itself.
The most popular kind of songpyeon (송편) is half-moon shaped rice pastry with sweet fillings of sesame seeds or mung bean powder. The name comes from how the rice cakes are steamed on a bed of fresh pine needles. You will also see clam-shaped, or oval shaped ones depending on the region and family tradition, and sweet fillings of unlimited options including sweet potatoes, chuestnuts, red beans, and nuts. The rice flour dough can be also supplemented with glutinous rice flour or potato starch.
Making songpyeon is surprisingly simple, and the quantity is easily adjustable. From one cup of rice flour, you can get about 10-15 songpyeon. Get a bag of frozen rice flour from a Korean grocery store and bring it to room temperature. Mix with just enough boiling water to form a dough (start with 3 Tablespoons of boiling water to 1 cup of rice flour). Knead until you get a consistency of soft playdough and let it rest for 30 minutes. Take a small amount to form a pocket, fill with your own sweet stuffing, shape it to a half-moon, then steam over boiling water for 15 minutes. Brush with sesame oil or vegetable oil to prevent them from sticking to one another.
Based on the basic recipe above, you can play with adding colors (find your own natural coloring options - some of mine are below), decorating, and shaping songpyeon like you would play with marzipan. I had the image of a full-moon evening in autumn, with colored leaves and persimmons when I started this 'arts & crafts' songpyeon making...although results were not exactly what I had imagined, it was fun to make them and delicious to eat.
Here are the measurements.
Black dough) 1 cup frozen rice flour (at room temperature), 2 Tablespoons (TBSP) of sweet rice flour (찹쌀가루; chap ssal ga ru), 1/8 teaspoon (ts) of salt, 1 ts of sugar, 1 TBSP of toasted, ground black sesame seeds and 5 TBSP* of boiling water.
Yellow dough) 1/2 cup frozen rice flour, 1 TBSP sweet rice flour, a pinch of salt, 1/2 ts of sugar and 1 ts of kabocha (단호박; dan ho bak) puree (I had some frozen from another time) and 1 TBSP of boiling water.
Orange dough) 1/2 cup frozen rice flour, 1 TBSP sweet rice flour, a pinch of salt, 1/2 ts of sugar, 1/2 ts of gochujang (고추장) and 1 TBSP of boiling water.
Green dough) 1/2 cup frozen rice flour, 1 TBSP sweet rice flour, a pinch of salt, 1/2 ts of sugar, 1/2 ts of mugwort powder (쑥 가루; ssuk ga ru) and 2 TBSP of boiling water. You can buy mugwort powder from a Korean grocery store or replace with green tea powder.
Filling) 1 TBSP toasted, crushed sesame seeds, 2 TBSP brown sugar, 2 TBSP toasted, chopped walnuts
* If you don't have an option of getting fresh ground rice flour that is common in Korea, buy frozen rice flour specifically for making rice cake and bring it to room temperature before using it. Unlike the dry flour you can get from a baking isle of a grocery store, frozen rice flour is made with rice soaked in water then ground. It has much higher content of water, coarser than other dry flour you're used to, and often comes with salt added to the flour.
* Always use boiling water to start mixing with a fork, then knead to form a dough.
* The amount of water is the trickiest part because it depends on how moist the flour is, how dry your kitchen is and what else is added to the dough. Start with a little at a time, and it's preferable to have it wet (more malleable) than dry (cracking).
* Adding a small amount of glutinous or sweet rice flour makes it easier to shape and adds a bit of sticky texture.
* While you're making songpyeon, keep them covered in wet paper towel from drying out.
* After adding the filling but before shaping the dough to a half-moon, close the pocket and squeeze in your palm to remove any air pockets.
* For any filling, be careful about using liquid. That is, sugar will dissolve while steaming to give you syrupy filling when you bite into songpyeon whereas honey will be absorbed to the dough and make the dough sticky before cooking.
Happy Chuseok! Happy Songpyeon Day!
autumn 가을 (ga eul)
moonlight 달빛 (dal bit)
evening 저녁 (jeo nyeok)