Like most Americans, I grew up equating Thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie. To cap off the meal with any other dessert would have seemed un-American. Yet, after more than 30 years of eating pumpkin at the holidays, I started craving a new fruit. Enter the persimmon.
The Algonquin Indians called this squat, smooth-skinned, red-orange fruit putchamin. Found throughout eastern North America, the sweet persimmon was a favorite of Native Americans as well as European colonists who had learned from local tribes how to pick and consume it. In the 17th century, Virginia’s Capt. John Smith even boasted that, when ripe, this unique produce was as sweet and delicious as apricots.
By 1709, settlers had phonetically altered the fruit’s spelling to persimmon. They did not, though, radically change how they used it.
From the Native Americans the settlers learned to wait until a persimmon had ripened and fallen from the tree to eat it. Along with consuming it straight from the ground, they featured it in puddings, breads, preserves, cakes and pies. They turned it into “simmon” beer and wine, beverages that were particularly popular during Colonial times. They likewise dried it for later usage.
Ripe persimmons have sweet flavor
What the settlers had understood is that, when green, a persimmon is more or less inedible. Its custardy flesh contains tannins that, unless the fruit has fully matured, make it pungently bitter. When ripe, though, it’s a creamy, honeyed treat.
My husband learned the ripeness rule firsthand when he plucked a hard, cherry-sized, yellowish-orange persimmon from a friend’s backyard tree. He bit into and immediately spat out the acrid flesh. It was, in a word, “horrible.” Only time and some culinary trickery could convince him to give persimmons another chance.
Although some gardeners insist it’s a myth, most believe that the fruit hits its prime after a good frost. Wives’ tale or not, I have popped immature, whole persimmons into the freezer overnight and then thawed them at room temperature. Defrosted, they became soft and delicious.
Persimmon season runs from September through December. Look for soft, deep reddish-orange fruit with all four papery leaves intact. Store at room temperature and consume within two days.
Before eating a persimmon, remove the leaves and seeds; I usually cut them out with a paring knife. You can then either scoop out the jellied flesh or slice the fruit and dig in.
While our ancestors enjoyed the petite American persimmon, today we mostly consume one of two larger, Japanese varieties, Hachiya or Fuyu. Similar to the American persimmon, the oblong Hachiya tastes best when fully ripened. The plump, tomato-shaped Fuyu can be eaten straight from the tree. No collecting of fallen fruit is necessary.
Fuyu and Hachiya possess a sweet, mildly pumpkin-like flavor. That’s why I consider persimmons a good substitute for the usual pumpkin pie. Similar to pumpkin, they go well with cinnamon, cream, ice cream and nutmeg. They also pair nicely with such common holiday ingredients as apples, cloves, ginger, pears, pecans, raisins, vanilla, walnuts, brandy and wine.
The beauty of persimmons is that they don’t require much effort to shine. After scooping out or slicing up the flesh, you can pulse it in a food processor or blender with a little vanilla, cinnamon and/or rum. Spoon the purée into dainty bowls and refrigerate until ready to serve.
In parts of the Southeast and Midwest, baked persimmon pudding remains a Thanksgiving favorite. Featuring puréed persimmons, buttermilk and spices, it’s a warm, tasty treat.
Puddings and purées may be nice, but I tend to prefer a more substantial dessert, such as a pie or tart. Easy to make, persimmon tart requires only four ingredients: puff pastry, sliced persimmons, butter and sugar. It’s a simple, sweet and delightful alternative to the old standby, pumpkin pie.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
⅔ cup sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
3 to 4 ripe persimmons, trimmed, seeded and sliced (Use four if you are using smaller American persimmons or three if you use the larger Fuyu or Hachiya persimmons.)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
2. In a 9-inch, oven-safe pan melt the butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger over medium heat, stirring to combine.
3. Once the sauce has thickened slightly and turned a light caramel color, place the persimmon slices in the pan. Overlap them slightly and neatly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the persimmons begin to meld with the sauce.
4. Place the puff pastry over the persimmons and tuck in the edges of the dough. Poke a few holes in the top of the pastry and then bake until the tart is golden and puffed up, about 20 minutes.
5. Remove the tart from the oven and cool slightly. Invert the tart onto a serving platter.
6. Serve warm with an optional side of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.
Photo: American persimmons. Credit: Kathy Hunt