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Photograph by Reginald Roberson

First Bitten: The beautiful persimmon, that most fickle of fruits, pays off if you give it a chance.

The Waiting Game

Persimmons pay off for those who are patient

By Sara Bir

Persimmons are a cult fruit. It's no small wonder, since they are wily, confounding things, too exotic to secure a prominent spot in Safeway's produce section but common enough to fall in abundance from trees in our front yards.

Last year, my persimmon supply was cut off when I left my old job. Someone there had a persimmon tree and would bring in paper grocery sacks tearing under the strain of the tree's generosity--for just as baseball-bat-sized zucchini become the gardener's albatross in the summer, an intimidatingly hearty growing colony of persimmons descends in the fall upon those with a persimmon tree. The bags would go into the break room, where people would glance at the glossy orbs apprehensively and say, "Hey, aren't those things the fruit that tastes like felt?"

And the answer is yes: a bite into the spiteful flesh of an underripe persimmon is indeed like sucking on a huge ball of felt or a mouthful of emery boards or a wad of soggy tea bags. A roly-poly and supple ripe persimmon is another creature altogether, though, transforming what was a shudder-inducing experience into a seductive seasonal obsession.

Persimmons are indigenous to America and were the first of native American fruits to be described by the early explorers. This variety--Diospyros virginiana--the Native Americans called putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin. Walnut-sized and wild, these persimmons are not fully ripe until they fall off the tree, and they are highly coveted in the Midwest. Sadly, the little Diospyros virginianas are rarely seen west of eastern Kansas, and we cannot partake in the joys of the wild persimmons Native Americans used to dry and bake into loaves.

The two types of persimmons grown commercially here in California are both of the species Diospyros kaki, and were introduced here from Japan, though they originated in China. Fuyus are squat, smallish, yellow-orange, and can be enjoyed while still firm, making them much better suited for commercial farming, because they can be sold fully ripe without turning into a bruised, squishy pile of goo. Fuyus have a meaty flesh and mangolike flavor, and fare well sliced in both savory and fruit salads. In Japan, where they are prized, fuyus are sometimes served cold with the skin peeled back, topped with sake.

Hachiyas are, here in Northern California, the variety commonly growing in our backyards. Flame-orange and shiny with an elongated shape that tapers at the end, hachiyas have a sculptural beauty that's perfect for still lifes or decorative fruit bowls. Because of the "felt factor," though, people often fear crossing beyond this admiration from a distance. Hachiyas can blame their bad reputation on the highly astringent level of tannic acid (the same thing that makes red wine chalky) they have when underripe, but as the fruit itself softens, so do the tannins, and suddenly hachiyas become a different thing altogether.

A fully ripe hachiya persimmon is supple and yielding, like a breast, and the skin takes on a translucent hue. This is the time to get into the marmalade-like pulp inside. The easiest way is to cut the clean persimmon in half and, holding the fruit over a bowl, scoop out the flesh with your fingers (it's messy, yes, but what good thing isn't?).

Ripe persimmons, which can take up to a month to ripen in the first place, don't like to wait. Either eat them right at this point--by cutting off the top and digging in with a spoon for Mother Nature's jello cup--or remove the pulp for use in recipes.

Persimmons are very stubborn, and a group of them will often refuse to all ripen in one convenient bunch. If they ripen at different rates, you can freeze their pulp, persimmon by persimmon, to make a stash of purée for a pudding or cake. You can also pop whole ripe persimmons into the freezer to deal with at your leisure (this, by the way, makes an instant sorbet; peel back the skin to reveal a simple and divine single-serving treat).

For those of us with no persimmon tree (or persimmon-laden neighbors), hachiyas can be found at farmers markets and seasonally at some grocery stores from October to December. Look for bright orange fruit with no yellow patches (this indicates they were picked before maturity) and no breaks in the skin. Store them at room temperature; persimmons stored in the refrigerator deteriorate faster.

To expedite the ripening of hachiyas, place them in a paper bag with an apple or banana, fold the top down, and check in every day. There are those who advocate freezing and then thawing whole persimmons to ripen the fruit quickly, and although it does soften their texture, I have found it does not alter the astringency of their flesh.

The best strategy is to be patient.

Accumulated thusly, persimmon pulp is like gold, so use it wisely but not sparingly. The stuff is wonderfully versatile. As is, stir it into plain yogurt, blend it into smoothies, or whisk a tablespoon or so into salad dressings. The ripe fruit's gelatinous quality lends itself beautifully to old-fashioned, elaborate molded gelatin desserts. Baking, however, best capitalizes persimmons' sticky sweetness. Cakes, cookies, and custards turn out redolent with an autumnal, fruited heaviness that no other fruit can impart.

Persimmon pudding, a seasonal favorite, has attached itself to the hearts of many with its dense, brownielike intensity and velvety, custardy texture. With an unassuming simplicity that's definitive of the most appealing American desserts, there is truly nothing quite like it, and it remains an underrated classic that could easily hold its own against any perfectly executed pumpkin pie.

It makes a fine addition to a Thanksgiving dessert spread, and it requires no fooling around with pastry, so it comes together remarkably quickly. Only plan ahead: to have enough persimmon pulp for a Thanksgiving pudding, you'll have to start gathering persimmons now. Their ripeness may be elusive, but it's rewarding.

Persimmon Pudding

This is based on Eva Powell's recipe from the December 2000 issue of Saveur magazine. It's fairly rich and serves eight to 10. Kept wrapped at room temperature, it keeps for about five days.

    4 tbsp. butter, melted
    1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
    1 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 tsp. cinnamon
    1/4 tsp. salt
    2 c. puréed persimmon pulp
    2 c. granulated sugar
    2 large eggs
    1 1/2 c. buttermilk
    1/4 c. heavy cream

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and position the rack in the lower third of the oven.

2. Grease a 9 by 13 inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter; set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

4. Beat persimmon pulp and sugar in a large bowl until well combined. Beat in eggs one at a time. Stir baking soda into buttermilk and add to pulp mixture; beat in heavy cream.

In three additions, add dry ingredients to pulp mixture, combining well but taking care not to over mix. Stir in remaining 3 tablespoons butter. The batter will be a lovely blushing salmon color, and its texture will be just barely foamy.

5. Pour batter into pan and bake about an hour, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. (The edges of the pudding will rise up and turn a deep amber; the rest will be sunken, with a shiny top, and the very center will still jiggle a teeny bit.)

Cool before serving. Garnish with whipped cream and a sprinkling of finely chopped walnuts or pecans if you are so inclined. Try whipped crème fraîche and a scattering of pomegranate seeds for a highly untraditional but lovely garnish that perfectly offsets the cloying sweetness of the pudding.

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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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