Nature has its way of providing. Just when it looks as if all autumn fruits have fallen, the landscape highlights one more offering: the sugar-sweet persimmon.
You can drive right past a persimmon tree in August and not even notice its dangling fruits, camouflaged in their own shades of green, among the waxy leaves. But by the time persimmon leaves fall, autumn winds have brought a rosy ripeness to those fruits still on the bough. It's a striking winter scene: tree against blue sky, hung with warm orange globes.
Persimmons aren't ready to be picked, though, until their beauty has faded. Before winter frost has made them shrivel and soften, they cause the proverbial pucker in the mouth. But by midwinter, frost has turned them ugly--and sweet.
To harvest persimmons, shake the tree. But spread a sheet or bedspread underneath first: The softer and larger the persimmons, the more they tend to smash as they fall, and a clean cloth down under keeps them from collecting dirt and grass.
You can't eat a persimmon as you would eat an apple or a pear. That is, you can, but you wouldn't want to. They're soft and squishy and full of almond-sized pits. To make fuller use of a bunch of persimmons, make them into persimmon pulp. They can be pushed with a wooden spoon through a strainer, or run through a hand-cranked food mill. Ingenuity might discover other ways to separate seeds from fruit and turn the fruit pulp into a smooth pure'e.
Why should one go through the hassles, the uninitiated might ask? Those of us who have tasted persimmons know the answer: that unmistakable warm orange natural sugar and spiciness. It's the special flavor that comes from gathering wintertime sweets--the wind in your hair, the mist on your face, the understanding of just how, when and where those wild fruits gained that flavor.
If you're more inclined to stalk persimmons in the grocery store, watch for cultivated Japanese persimmons, grown in some volume these days in California. They're as large as a nectarine, shinier and prettier than the wild persimmons you'll find on a country tree. Since they are often picked when under-ripe, they sometimes still have that puckery astringency that old-time persimmon eaters know to look out for. But left to age a week or so in a fruit bowl, they'll soon wither and turn tasty. PERSIMMON-SWEET POTATO PIE (Makes 1 9-inch pie) Crust: 1/2 cup shortening 1 cup unbleached white flour 1/4 cup wheat germ 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 cup cold water Filling: 2 or 3 cooked sweet potatoes 20 wild persimmons, strained for pulp (substitute 4 to 5 cultivated ones) 1/4 cup sorghum syrup (or substitute 1/4 cup honey, brown sugar or light molasses) 1/2 cup milk or cream 2 eggs 1 teaspoon cinnamon Whipped cream for garnish
Mix together all crust ingredients but water. Add water as needed to make a workable dough. Roll out and spread in pie pan.
Mash together sweet potatoes and persimmon pulp -- you want about 3 cups of bright orange pure'e. Stir in sorghum and cream or milk; beat in eggs. Blend together briskly over low heat to thicken slightly. Add cinnamon while heating.
Pour filling into crust and bake pie at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Delicious with whipped cream on top. PERSIMMON MOUSSE 6 servings) 3 eggs, separated 1/4 cup honey or sorghum 1 cup whipping cream 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup pure'ed persimmon pulp
Combine 3 beaten egg yolks, honey or sorghum, 2 tablespoons of the cream, vanilla and nutmeg in a double boiler. Heat gently and stir until the mixture reaches a custard consistency. Stir in the persimmon pulp and continue heating gently, stirring often, another 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Whip the remaining cream and fold it into the custard, then beat the egg whites to frothy peaks and fold them in, too. Spoon into sherbet glasses and chill in freezer at least 2 hours before serving. PERSIMMON WAFFLES (Makes 8 to 10 waffles) 2 cups flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 eggs, separated 1 tablespoon honey or molasses 1/4 cup milk or buttermilk 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup oil or melted butter 1 cup pure'ed persimmon pulp Coconut, wheat germ, chopped nuts or raisins (optional) Soft butter and hot maple syrup for serving
Mix together flour, baking powder and salt in small mixing bowl. In large mixing bowl, beat egg yolks, then add to them honey or molasses, milk or buttermilk, water, oil or melted butter and persimmon pulp. Briskly blend together, then toss in dry ingredients and blend just a little bit more. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold them into batter. Spoon batter onto hot waffle griddle. Ornament waffles by sprinkling coconut, wheat germ, chopped nuts or raisins onto batter before closing griddle lid. Serve with soft butter and hot maple syrup.