My mom’s mom used to bake a persimmon cake every year for Christmas dinner. On the big day, mouthwatering aromas of spice and fruit would mingle with the scent of roasted meat and Grandpa’s pipe, semi-materializing as perfumed tendrils of steam that shimmied their way out of the windows of her little Craftsman cottage in San Jose’s Rose Garden district. They made me so ravenously hungry that I would rocket up the few short steps to her front door.
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The kitchen was Grandma’s personal fiefdom and she brooked no nonsense from anyone, shooing me in particular out of the way as she pulled the steaming confection from her ancient white Wedgeworth stove. This was one of her annual masterpieces, and I learned to watch quietly from the sidelines as she pulled together yet another perfect dinner replete with a luscious homemade dessert.
Now fast-forward a couple of decades, after living in Hawai’i and Taiwan, where the concept of a mochi cake hijacked my fantasies into a totally different direction. Slightly chewy, considerably less sweet and more texturally interesting than Western gâteaux, this dessert has become my pet project. Over the years, I have devised numerous takes on it, trying to blur the line between East and West to the nth degree.
But especially around this time of year, I never forget Grandma’s cake, and that has led to this, my latest love. It is a great hybrid of old memories and new experiences; it is also the perfect holiday treat for guests who are on gluten-free diets and a strangely familiar indulgence for Asian friends.
Dead-ripe Hachiya persimmons flavor the cake and provide a sensational moistness that is offset by crunchy toasted walnuts and plump dragon-eye fruit (also known as longans), a sweet and luscious relative of the lychee that comes from China.
The day that you make it, the cake will have a light and tender crumb, but if it is allowed to sit for a couple of days, that lovely mochi texture comes to the fore. You therefore get two cakes in one.
Easy to pull together, this is a dessert you can prepare a couple of days before your guests arrive. Really, though, you must stash it away; otherwise it will disappear way too quickly.
Persimmon mochi cake
Makes an 8-by-8-inch cake and serves 6 to 8
½ cup broken walnuts
½ cup pitted dried longans or raisins
Boiling water, as needed
3 large, very soft Hachiya persimmons (to give you around 1½ cups persimmon puree)
2 cups mochi (aka sticky, sweet or glutinous rice) flour
1½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup dark brown sugar, divided
2 large eggs
½ cup canola or other flavorless oil
1. Place the rack in the middle of the oven and heat it to 350 F. Spray an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with oil. Scatter the walnuts in a smaller baking pan and place this in the oven while it is heating up so that the walnuts can be slowly toasted; remove them before they turn too brown and pour them into a bowl to cool down.
2. While the walnuts are toasting, place the longans or raisins in a heatproof work bowl and cover them with boiling water to plump them up. Put the soft persimmons through a food mill or sieve to remove the skins and gelatinous sections; you should have around 1½ cups puree.
3. Mix the mochi flour, baking powder, salt, ginger and ⅔ cup brown sugar together in a large work bowl. In another work bowl, lightly beat the eggs and then mix in the persimmon puree, water and oil. Stir the persimmon mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well; since there is no gluten in the cake, you can beat away to your heart’s content without worry of ending up with a tough cake.
4. Then, drain the dried fruit well and toss it into the mix along with the toasted walnuts. Stir this again and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the surface and sprinkle the remaining ⅓ cup brown sugar on top. Bake the cake for around 1 hour. It is ready when the edges start to pull away from the pan; poke the center of the cake with a toothpick, and if the batter does not taste like raw rice flour, it is done. Cool the cake completely on a rack and cut into squares as desired. Refrigerate or freeze if serving another day.
Use the big, heart-shaped Hachiya persimmons and not the flattish Fuyu or Sweet Pumpkin varieties. Make sure that they are very ripe and very soft — otherwise, the persimmons will make your teeth feel as if they were wearing socks.
Dried pitted longans (lóngyǎngān 龍眼乾) are sold in most Chinese grocery stores, but the best ones are found in either herbal shops or Chinese dried seafood stores, for some strange reason. Select fruits that are not too dark (as this indicates age); they should be fat, tan and still soft enough to squeeze gently. Store them in a closed container in the pantry.
I prefer Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour, which comes in one-pound boxes; you will need two-thirds of a box for this recipe.
If you use a glass baking pan, place it on top of a cookie sheet to prevent the bottom from browning too quickly.
The recipe can be easily doubled for more guests, but I then bake this in two 8-by-8-inch pans so that the center is not in the least mushy.
Top photo: A persimmon atop the author’s grandmother’s cake recipe. Credit: Carolyn Phillips