Persimmons are sweet when ripe, and perfect for fall desserts
On a recent frosty morning (the one we've had so far this fall), I was hiking around the Beacon Hill neighborhood when I spied a smallish tree laden with pale orange fruit. Clustered here and there on the sidewalk like miniature pumpkins were ripe Fuyu persimmons, cheery harbingers of cool weather and shorter days.
Persimmons are a misunderstood fruit. There is a southern U.S. version of the species, a member of the Ebony family, that shows off a smooth, insect-resistant trunk in variegated shades of orange, gray, and brown. Its fruit is dark when ripe and can only be eaten when it is jelly soft; otherwise it causes puckering and subsequent bad-mouthing of the poor Texas Persimmon. But the orange and reddish Asian persimmons also grow well in the U.S., and crops in California account for much of the harvest you'll find in the grocery stores just in time for Thanksgiving.
This is also the easiest way to make persimmon pulp which can be used in a variety of rich, spicy, cool weather desserts. Scoop out the fruit and force it through a sieve or spin on low in the blender. The funky Complete Fruit Cookbook, published in San Francisco in 1972 and featuring some corny graphite nudes á la Garden of Eden, came to my rescue here, too. Invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a boyfriend's parents' house, I offered to bring dessert. Great, said the boyfriend, my father went to the Cordon Bleu academy in New York and he loves desserts. Super, I said, wondering if I could pass off a treat from Biga as my own.
I went to Central Market in low spirits and, in one of those self-sabotaging, up-the-ante moments, I found myself buying some gorgeous, sunset-colored fruit that felt good and comforting in the palm of my hand. They were persimmons and I had no idea what to do with them. Fortunately, the cookbook is organized alphabetically and I was soon figuring out how to jerry-rig a steamer out of a dutch oven, a small roasting rack, and a coffee can for Steamed Persimmon Pudding with Brandied Hard Sauce (my quarry had specialized in sauces and I was going to out-sauce him if it killed me).
Eaten fresh, persimmons have a slightly astringent flavor with a heavy sweet overlay. They taste like no other fruit I've eaten, but they are subtle enough that when baked into breads or steamed puddings (which have a consistency like bread pudding, not like Jell-O-brand), they create a bright, almost neutral, vaguely fruity background for spices, currants, nuts, and/or raisins. Serve your version with a brandied hard sauce and any and all sins will be forgiven. Not only was this dessert a hit, but a month later I received a phone call: A slice of the pudding and a bit of the sauce had been pushed to the back of the fridge. The flavors deepened with age and brought the persimmon to the forefront, the chef reported. And it was delicious. •
By Elaine Wolff