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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 23, 2001

Persimmon perfection Persimmon perfection (November 23, 2001)

A good sleuth can track down persimmons before they've left the tree

by Diana Reynolds Roome

A canny Californian should seldom have to go out and buy persimmons, even though ours is the only state in which the fruit is cultivated for mass markets. That's because one of the sweetest sights of the season is a roadside notice hastily chalked up: Persimmons - free.

Even if your supermarket is bursting with them, it's best to become a sleuth for persimmons and catch them where you can see them in their full glory. Neighbors' backyards, suburban walks and country drives may yield a supply. Abandoned trees offer up their abundance. If a co-worker brings a bulging bag into the office begging for relief from her glut, don't refuse. She may invite you to admire her tree later. As I walk or drive, I keep a look out for that inimitable bright glow among turning leaves, and with luck an invitation to help myself nearby.

One of my neighbors charges a dollar for four glossy fuyus, and I look forward to the day her notice goes up a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving each year. She leaves them in a box near her door. You choose your fruit, toss in your money and gaze at the tree.

It's fine to pay for them, but the important thing is to get close to the source. Like mushrooms, which taste so much better when they exude the flavor of the damp field where you discovered them, the persimmon is most delectable when you behold it first on the branch.

"They're just fabulous against a blue sky, or at sunset when the light is kind of golden," said Karin Schlanger, who sells persimmons at her family's produce stall at Palo Alto's Farmers' Market. Even off the trees, they draw a crowd. Her husband, David Winsberg of Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto, makes almost no money from them.

"We take them because we have them," said Schlanger, whose small family business specializes in varieties of peppers. "Everybody in the family helps pick and sell." Their three persimmon trees produce enough for a few weeks, usually from the weekend before Thanksgiving.

"Most people say, 'I'm going to use these for decoration,'" said Schlanger. "A few use them for cooking, and you can always tell which are, because they buy lots. People who know their persimmons know their persimmons."

So what's to know?

There are around 1,000 varieties, according to the directory of the California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. The American persimmon, once known to native Americans as putchamin (or speaking botanically, diospyros virginiana) is more favored by pigs than humans. Grown mostly in eastern states, it makes good rootstock but bitter fruit, unless very ripe.

The varieties we see in California are almost all of Japanese origin. The squat fuyu is crisp and delicious eaten fresh like an apple. Since it packs a whopping 218 mg. of vitamin C in a 3.5-oz. serving, it's a great deterrent to colds and flu. Up-market restaurants toss sliced fuyu into their salads. Sliced and dried in a dehydrator, they make excellent fruit leather.

The taller, pointed hachiya is trickier but maybe more versatile: astringent when immature, rich and date-like when ripe. When the skin starts to lose its gloss, hachiya comes into its own as an ingredient for baking, and can be substituted for apples in some recipes. It can be mashed and served as a low-fat sauce to accompany meat or poultry, or as a topping for angel food cake. Like all the deep orange-colored fruits and vegetables so common at this season, it offers a substantial amount of vitamin A and beta carotene.

All persimmons are best picked ripe. Experienced Asian shoppers examine the calyx to judge maturity, as this determines how they will use the fruit. For many, the idea is to string the fruit together, and hang them in a sunny place to dry until they turn a dramatic black and develop a sugary coating.

Most persimmons will never reach that stage, because other possibilities are too tempting. Will they become bread, cake, cookies, soup, smoothies or even ice cream?

Many cookbooks don't mention persimmons, but friends' grannies often harbor secret recipes. Or let the fruit suggest its own transformation. A persimmon is a culinary conundrum: gelatinous or grainy, crisp or mushy, sweet and tart. When frozen whole and the top sliced off, it's a ready-made sorbet in its own garnet dish, to be eaten with cream or sake, and of course a silver spoon.

Steamed persimmon pudding, if passed up for dessert, can make a nutritious breakfast. Warm persimmon bread, a marvelous rosy color, is impossible to refuse. For something sweeter, there's the persimmon cake, moist and redolent of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, spices that take very well to the flavor of the fruit. At the opposite end of the temperature scale is persimmon ice cream, or the pulp used as a sauce on top of ice cream, under a topping of chopped pecans.

Persimmon pulp can be successfully frozen and used when needed. Puddings freeze very well too, according to Ann Bosted whose favorite recipe appears below. She started experimenting with a recipe given to her by Muzhe Hacking, who had a magnificent tree in her Palo Alto garden. Now her pudding is a flaming event that has borrowed some of the trappings of the English plum duff, and makes a festive dessert for Thanksgiving or Christmas. "Though Muzhe sadly passed on, I still scrounge persimmons from friends," said Bosted. "I hate to see them go to waste."
Muzhe's Flaming Persimmon Pudding

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Peel 1 or 2 ripe, soft persimmons and put them through a sieve until you have 1 cup of pulp. Discard all unripe hard parts, core, seeds and skin.

In a blender, combine the pulp with 1/4 cup of milk, 1 tsp. of vanilla, 1/2 cup melted butter. To this add a dash of salt, 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar (or less). Then mix in 1 cup of chopped nuts, 1 cup raisins and finally 2 tsp. of baking soda.

Pour the mixture into greased bread or pudding pans. Cover with foil and bake about 1 hour. Serve hot accompanied by hard sauce or whipped cream.
Hard Sauce

Combine softened butter, powdered sugar and brandy or sherry (the three deadly sins!) 'til it tastes great, then chill until hard. (Begin with about one-quarter pound butter; cream with powdered sugar until it won't hold any more, then add a tablespoon of brandy to start; adjust sugar and brandy until you have a creamy consistency.)

To serve: Heat brandy in a small pan, then light it with a match. Pour the burning liquor over the pudding. If children are present, keep them at a safe distance. You can also insert washed coins - new quarters, dimes etc. - and make sure the children get coins in their helpings. Spoon sauce on to thin slices of pudding. The combination is very rich, so start with small helpings.


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