If you want a moist autumn cake, put a persimmon in it. Or, in the case of this recent obsession I call persimmon pudding cake, make that four to six persimmons, depending on size.
This cake has been a project.
Many years ago while I was having dinner with friends, a dessert came to the table. It was humbly wrapped in the tin foil used by the woman who made it before she gave it to my host. He unfolded the protective flaps of crinkly tin foil away from treasure inside. It was a square the size of an uncut pan of brownies. Instead of the matte look of chocolate, this cake was dark as mahogany and glistened as if it had been dipped in honey.
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Before me was persimmon cake. Of course I’d experienced persimmon fudge, persimmon pie and persimmon bread. But I was not to forget the taste reminiscent of gingerbread and a rich consistency firm enough to chew but soft and lush, like cheesecake meets mousse.
By persimmon season the next autumn, I tried to replicate the cake. The recipe was gone with the passing of the woman who had baked it. I hunted persimmon trees in my neighborhood that yielded the proper fruit, the Hachiya persimmon. This is different than the small persimmon eaten like an apple, which is the Fuyu. The Hachiya is big and heart-shaped and needs to be so fully ripe that to the touch it feels like there’s a loose gland under its thin skin.
When the fruit is ready, astringency should have yielded to sweetness. At this point, the Hachiya pulp can easily be scooped out of the skin, and the somewhat slimy neon-orange pulp can be puréed in a food processor.
I tried using the pulp in applesauce cake, but it was too runny. Then cider cake, which was too juicy. I tweaked gingerbreads. I made steamed persimmon pudding in an old pudding mold that I lowered into simmering water. With each effort, when I inverted the pan onto a serving platter, the dish drooled juices or fell apart. I added flour, cut back on liquid, increased leavening. Still, it was not right.
It wasn’t quite “CSI: Persimmon” at my house, but close. I knew that the woman who first made the cake I loved had come to California from West Virginia. Considering her age and regional traditions, I had a hunch. I went to an old “Joy of Cooking” and found the recipe for persimmon pudding that wasn’t steamed at all, but baked.
Again, results were too runny. I cut back on cream and some of the sugar. The trick was to change “Joy’s” one-bowl dump method to a technique typical of more structured cakes. For this, the butter and sugar were beaten first.
On my last try, I also had in the house a huge bag of home-dried pluots from my brother-in-law’s tree. He had dried them without citric acid, so they were dark and ugly. On impulse, he’d dusted his entire haul with chile powder. They were spicy!
I cut the pluots into small dice and added them to the persimmon batter, then baked it much longer than the “Joy” recipe and started it a higher temperature, hoping it would cook through while staying moist without being soupy.
Success is the recipe below. If you don’t have ugly dark home-dried pluots, which I’m sure you do not, use raisins, apricots, dates or dried plums (not prunes).
Persimmon Pudding Cake
Prep time: 45 minutes
Baking time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes
1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder (such as New Mexico or ancho chile powder)
1 cup diced dried raisins, pluots, dates, apricots or plums ½ cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 stick butter, soft
2 cups puréed persimmon pulp (from 4 to 6 very ripe Hachiya persimmons)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 1/2 cups cream
1. Butter a deep 9-inch square pan. To catch drips, prepare to set baking dish on a baking sheet or a large sheet of foil. Heat oven to 400 F.
2. In a bowl, toss the chopped dried fruit with chile powder; set aside.
3. Cream sugars and butter very well. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until each is absorbed. Stir in persimmon pulp.
4. In another bowl, sift baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.
5. With mixer on low speed, add flour and cream alternately to the persimmon batter in three helpings, ending with flour. Stir in chile-dried fruit.
6. Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish. To catch drips, set on a rimmed baking sheet or a sheet of foil.
7. Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 60 to 70 minutes more. Insert a toothpick near the center. If batter sticks to the toothpick, bake 10 to 15 minutes more. Center will just barely jiggle.
8. Cool in pan on a cooling rack no longer than an hour. Set a timer! Loosen by running a knife around the edges. Flip cake onto a serving platter. A bit of juice may pool around the cake.
9. Let stand until the cake cools completely. Serve with dollops of whipped cream on each piece.
Main photo: Persimmon Pudding Cake. Credit: Elaine Corn