Songpyeon (half-moon shaped rice cakes)

A must-have Chuseok (the Autumnal Full Moon Harvest Festival like a Thanksgiving Day in the West) delicacy is songpyeon ― small half-moon shaped rice cakes (tteok) that are stuffed with sweet fillings and steamed on a bed of pine needles.

The name songpyeon origins from the use of pine needles (“song” in “songpyeon” means pine tree).

Traditionally, short grain rice was soaked overnight and drained before being ground into a fine powder in a gristmill.

These days, people can easily find bags of wet rice powder that is specifically made for making rice cakes in the fridge or freezer section in all the Korean grocery shops.

Korean house wives tend to use frozen rice powder for the recipe.

The rice powder is mixed with boiling hot water and kneaded into soft dough.

The longer you knead, the chewier the texture of the rice cakes will be.

Songpyeon dough is typically flavoured and coloured with natural ingredients.

You could add ssukgaru (mugwort) and steamed danhobak (kabocha) to make green and yellow dough.

Making songpyeon is a good way for the family to spend time together during this special holiday.

Each batch yields about 20 rice cakes.

Ingredients:

Basic (white) dough

● 2 cups of frozen rice powder (ssalgaru), thawed to room temperature

● 4 tablespoons plus 1 or 2 teaspoons boiling hot water

Green dough

● 2 cups of frozen rice powder, thawed to room temperature

● 2 tablespoons ssukgaru (mugwort powder) (or matcha/green tea powder)

● 5 tablespoons plus 1 or 2 teaspoons boiling hot water

Yellow dough

● 2 cups of frozen rice powder, thawed to room temperature

● 1/3 cup steaming hot danhobak* (kabocha)

● 1 tablespoon plus 1 or 2 teaspoons boiling hot water

(*1/2 small danhobak steamed in the microwave for about 5 minutes)

Filling (Fills about 60 rice cakes - 3 batches):

● 1 cup roasted sesame seeds (crushed)

● 4 tablespoons sugar (adjust to taste)

● 2 tablespoons honey

● Pinch of salt (Mix everything together well.)

About 120 grams pine needles, rinsed 2-3 times and air or pat dried (optional)

About 1 tablespoon sesame oil

Make Dough:

For each type of dough, sift the rice powder into a bowl. Add the water and the flavoring/coloring ingredients to the rice powder, quickly stirring them in with a spoon. The moisture level in the rice powder may vary, so adjust the amount of water accordingly. Make sure the water is boiling hot.

Knead, pressing and stretching with the heel of the hand. Fold and rotate the dough. Repeat the kneading process for at least 5 minutes. (If the dough sticks to your hands or the bowl after some kneading, it’s too wet. Add more rice powder in 1 tablespoon increments. If the dough breaks easily or is too stiff, it’s too dry. Add more boiling hot water in 1 teaspoon increments.)

Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a wet towel. Let it rest for 20-30 minutes.

Assemble:

Tear off a small piece of the dough to form a roughly 3-centimeter ball. Roll tightly between the palms of your hands to shape the ball.

Make a well in the ball by pressing into it with your thumb, and press outwards, with both of your thumbs, on the inside walls of the well to slightly expand the opening.

Place 1/2 teaspoon of the filling in the well. Seal tightly by squeezing the edges together. Squeeze the whole rice cake lightly in your palm to firm it up. Shape it to resemble a half moon. Repeat until all the dough or filling is used.

Steam and finish:

Fill a steamer with water. Place a thin layer of pine needles or a damp kitchen cloth on the steamer insert. Boil the water over high heat. When it starts to steam, place the rice cakes on the steamer insert without the pieces touching one another. Cover with a thin layer of pine needles, if available. Cover and steam for about 20 minutes.

Prepare a big bowl of cold water. Using a long-handed spoon or tong, remove the rice cakes from the steamer. Drop them in the cold water for a quick rinse, removing all the pine needles. Transfer the rice cakes to a colander to drain. Lightly coat your hands with the sesame oil and rub the oil on the rice cakes in batches. Serve warm or at room temperature.