No puckering required 

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Fuyu Persimmons are an Asian variety that grow well in the United States. They are characterized by their flat tops and bottoms and a warm orange color when ripe. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

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.

Steamed persimmon pudding with brandied hard sauce

1 c persimmon pulp
2 t baking soda
1/4 lb butter
1 1/2 c sugar
2 eggs
1 t lemon juice
2 t vanilla extract
2 T brandy or milk
1 c flour
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t salt
1 c raisins
1/2 c chopped pecans

Prepare persimmon pulp; stir in soda and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs, lemon juice, vanilla, and brandy, then puree in a blender. Sift flour with cinnamon and salt; stir into creamed mixture. Add raisins and nuts. Thoroughly grease a 2-quart pudding mold and its lid. Spoon mixture into mold and secure lid. Place mold on a rack about boiling water in steamer, and cover. Steam for 2 1/2 hours, adding more boiling water if needed. Cool 10 minutes and unmold. Serve warm immediately, or cool, wrap, refrigerate, and serve cold. Serve with Brandied Hard Sauce.

Brandied hard sauce

1/2 c soft butter
1 c sifted powder sugar
3 T brandy

Beat together butter, powdered sugar, and brandy. Cover and chill until needed. Makes 1 1/2 cups sauce.

Note: You can substitute a 2-pound coffee can for the pudding mold and use a double thickness of foil or waxed paper securely tied with string for a lid. If you do not have a steamer, you can use a deep kettle with a tight lid. Use a rack, trivet, or inverted, perforated foil pie plate to hold the pudding one inch above the bottom of the pot. Pour in boiling water until it comes up to, but does not touch, the bottom of the mold. If you need to add water during cooking, add boiling water so the cooking process is not interrupted.
My neighbor, a gentleman of a certain age, cultivates Fuyu persimmons in his backyard amongst abandoned '70s-era sedans. He brought over a bushel, still green, last month (the birds were already pecking at them, he said), but I used a technique recommended by the out-of-print The Complete Fruit Cookbook: Place the unripe persimmons in a brown paper bag with an apple - one apple for six to eight persimmons. The apple releases ethylene that encourages the persimmons to ripen in five to seven days. Fuyus and other orange-skinned varieties, such as the acorn-shaped Hychia, are ripe for recipes when they are still firm but fully colored. If you're going to eat them raw, however, I recommend waiting until your roommate or spouse asks if they're rotten. When they are so soft that they begin to lose their shape when you press them gently, cut them open from the top and spoon out like pudding.

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



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