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WRITTEN BY ANDREW JAYASUNDERA
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TOM REESE

Pucker Up for Persimmons
Properly ripe, these fruits offer a sweet kiss for desserts
 
 Photo
Their vivid color and sumptuous shape make persimmons a natural for decorating holiday tables. When cooked in a traditional pudding, the pear-shaped hachiyas take on a rich mahogany hue and a chocolate-like flavor with fruit undertones.
YOU MAY HAVE been warned about this fruit. If you try to eat a brilliant-orange, seemingly ripe persimmon, and it's the astringent kind, it can "turn your mouth inside out" as an acquaintance once said. The most memorable description of eating persimmons comes from the colonist Capt. John Smith: "If it be not ripe it will drawe a man's mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."

Astringent persimmons are edible only when the firm flesh has softened like a too-ripe apricot and the skin has thinned to translucency. I discovered this when ripening persimmons in a brown paper bag to make an old-fashioned American favorite, persimmon pudding. Beware that, once ripe, the fruit can turn almost overnight, and needs to be handled lightly and used quickly. But the pudding is worth the trouble.

Persimmon pudding has an inimitable taste, a chocolate-like flavor with fruit undertones, that usually charms all who try it. Although it is traditionally served with whipped cream, I prefer to garnish it with toasted cashews. Blanched almonds work equally well. The nuts are a nice contrast in color and texture to the rich flavor of the mahogany-colored pudding.
 
Recipe

Photo
 Persimmon Pudding
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Recipes that use the fruit in puddings, cakes, breads and muffins are actually based on the American persimmon, a fruit we don't see in the Pacific Northwest. The attractive fruit we encounter here are actually East Asian varieties introduced to the United States in the late 19th century. These Japanese persimmons have eclipsed the American ones in popularity.

When you look at persimmons in the markets, you will notice two varieties: the pear-shaped hachiya and the tomato-shaped fuyu. The astringent hachiya, now grown in California, is a good substitute for American persimmons in recipes. Ripe hachiyas can also be puréed with a little lemon or lime juice to make a sauce for pouring over pancakes, cakes or ice cream, blending into milkshakes or swirling into yogurt.

Unlike the hachiya, the fuyu is a nonastringent variety that can be eaten any time. I prefer to let them ripen a few days to soften them a bit and bring out their sweetness, but they never achieve the ambrosial sweetness of ripe hachiyas. Crisper in texture, fuyus are well-suited for making both green and fruit salads. Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma, for example, favors a salad of pink grapefruit wedges, sliced fuyus and lettuce dressed in a simple vinaigrette to serve with soup or grilled meat.

Persimmons are one of the last fruits to come into season. Long after the leaves have fallen, the fruit can remain on the tree and ripen into late fall or early winter. These golden fruit hanging on gnarled branches against the blue sky, with snow all around, must truly be a spectacular sight.

Native Americans timed the fruit's ripening by the passage of the seasons. They advised early European settlers that persimmons should be eaten only after the first frost. Perhaps they had discovered, like the Japanese, that you can pick the half-frozen fruit off the tree to eat like a sorbet. We can create the same effect by freezing ripe hachiyas, thawing them for about four hours in the refrigerator, cutting off the tops and scooping up the all-fruit "sorbet."

Otherwise, Native Americans and East Asians used persimmons in similar ways. They ate it fresh when ripe and also dried the fruit to consume during winter.

Persimmons' long-lasting quality also makes them perfect for using as seasonal decoration, like winter squashes. A bowl of persimmons on a kitchen or dining-room table is a cheerful centerpiece, the fruits' glowing colors reminding us of the dancing flames of fireplaces indoors and the warm hues of autumn leaves outside.

Andrew A. Jayasundera is a publications specialist and freelance writer. He can be reached at andrewjaya@hotmail.com. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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