Pumpkin isn’t the only worthy fruit of fall that starts with P

Autumn used to be my favorite culinary season. The standard fare of autumnal foods brought back delightful memories of food and family — until they invented Starbucks.
I have mixed feelings about Starbucks. I don’t love their coffee (I prefer Peet’s), but I do appreciate that they introduced good coffee to the American palate. I don’t love that they are on every block, but I do appreciate their presence along highways across America, saving the lives of sleepy drivers one double espresso at a time. But I will curse them to my dying day for making fall flavors a joke.
The seemingly innocuous Pumpkin Spice Latte has spawned an unimaginably stupid array of products tinged with the aroma of fall — goat cheese, Cheerios, butter, Milanos, Pringles, as well as ludicrous nonedibles like toothpaste, deodorant, condoms, dog treats and cat litter. (I am not making any of these up.) There is no aspect of modern life immune from this scourge. Let us hope we have reached peak pumpkin-spice saturation.
This is upsetting to me as a chef, because any attempt to create a pumpkin-spice dessert will henceforth be endlessly mocked. Never mind that I have been rolling out my pumpkin repertoire every fall for the past 30 years. My only choice is to switch up my game.
Enter the persimmon.
Though less popular than pumpkin, the persimmon is a worthy substitute in recipes that welcome autumn, because it pairs nicely with pumpkin spice — that perfect ratio of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove (plus ginger and cardamom at my house). Though relatively unknown to most shoppers, bakers have used this fruit in quick breads, cookies and cakes for decades. It makes lovely tarts, cheesecakes, custards and jams. Adventurous chefs add it to salads, salsas and chutneys, pair it with soft cheese on bruschetta, stir it into couscous with olives and thyme or wrap it in salty cured meats. And those in the know can’t wait to eat a fresh ripe persimmon out of hand.
But persimmon newbies take note — unfamiliarity can lead to an awful persimmon experience. To maximize your persimmon pleasure, memorize the following key persimmon facts:

The persimmon originated in China, and there are dozens of varieties. But in our markets there are two main types available — the short, squat, tomato-shaped Fuyu and the large, acorn-shaped Hachiya.
The Hachiya is the most prolific persimmon in California. It is sometimes called “lantern fruit” because the persimmons hang lantern-like from the tree after the leaves have dropped. They are known as an astringent variety, which means that until they are perfectly ripe, they are inedible. Those with the misfortune of biting into an unripe Hachiya experience an immediate pucker from excessive tannins, an experience akin to licking chalk marinated in make-up remover. You must wait until the Hachiya is dark orange and extremely soft. When the time is right, the mature fruit is juicy and sweet, with a custardy texture and a floral aroma. This is the perfect persimmon to stir into cookie doughs and cake batters.
The Fuyu is not astringent. It is sweet when firm and is the best choice for slicing and dicing. It makes the best salads, tossed with baby greens, Asian pears, pecans, pomegranate seeds and a light vinaigrette. Try it sautéed in garlic with the last of the season’s heirloom tomatoes and Parmesan. Or slice it paper-thin like carpaccio, drizzled with olive oil and dotted with goat cheese.
But my favorite use for persimmons is in a spicy, nutty baked pudding that I was taught in culinary school. It was during this course that I learned firsthand what an unripe Hachiya could do to your mouth — and your GPA. My second attempt was better, and I have been making it every year since. Try this recipe when you have a hankering for pumpkin spice but prefer to avoid the ridicule.

Bo Friberg’s Persimmon Pudding

Bo Friberg was my chef. He was classically trained in Sweden, honed his skills on the world’s great cruise lines and owned his own successful shop before joining the faculty of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, which I attended in the 1980s. He was a master of marzipan modeling (his vanity license plate read “MARZIPAN”), and the author of The Professional Pastry Chef, the industry’s standard, now in its fifth edition. The first edition was my textbook, and it is from there that I have, over the years, adapted this ode to fall.

Ingredients:

1 cup golden or muscat raisins
1 cup dark rum (I prefer Myers’s.)
1 cup persimmon purée (I prefer very ripe Hachiyas, but Fuyus work as well. To make purée, scoop fruit out of skin into a blender or food processor. After processing, push through a strainer for the finest consistency.)
1¼ cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I prefer Mexican vanilla.)

¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
½ cup milk¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
½ cup milk

Method

1. Cover raisins with rum and set aside to plump overnight (or, if you are in a hurry, microwave until warm, then set aside for 1 hour).
2. Preheat oven to 325°, and coat a bundt pan with pan spray.
3. Combine persimmon purée with sugar, oil and vanilla, then mix well. Sift together flour, baking soda, salt and spices, and fold into mixture. Drain the raisins (reserve the liquid), and stir them in, along with the nuts. Slowly stir the milk in last. Transfer the batter to prepared bundt pan, and bake for 1 hour, or until firm to the touch. When cool, invert onto a serving platter. Serve pudding with whipped cream spiked with the reserved raisin rum, and a quick grate of nutmeg.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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