A Fruit Dessert to make again and again
By Danielle Rehfeld Colen
3 Novembers ago, on a lazy fall morning, I meandered the Old Oakland farmers market with California transplant, James Beard Award winning pastry chef Angela Pinkerton, formerly of Eleven Madison Park (and soon to open Theorita). Our day was set. We’d walk the market and then take a drive up to CIA Greystone where Stephen Durfee, Professor of Baking and Pastry Arts, also a former Beard award winner, had invited us to lunch and a tour of the school’s stately campus.
Following Angela around the market, as I had so many times in NY’s Union Square, what we discovered was anything but the usual pears, apples and squash that appear at our Atlantic coast stands. Scattered about the farmer’s tables were a bevvy of exotic fruits and vegetables. Golf ball size juju bees splotched like quince tamarind hybrids, baby white eggplant with their thorny stems, lime green guava, and the elusive persimmon.
Originally introduced to the US from Japan, the most commonly available persimmon varieties we find here in the states are the squat, pumpkin shaped Fuyu and it’s longer, bright orange skinned cousin, the hachiya.
While the fuyus are waxy, mutely colored things, they can be eaten on the firmer side, their skin giving way to a surprisingly juicy, subtly flavored flesh. The Hachiya on the other hand, must be eaten at just the right time. When under ripe and firm, the hachiya will give your tongue a dry, mealy, and altogether unpleasant feel. When very soft, the paper thin, and often spotted skin will peel away like an over ripe tomato’s. The interior will be electric, dripping, neon flesh, unlike any color and texture of fruit you’ve experienced.
While I’d been enjoying persimmon fruit for my whole life during the very short season they’re available in fall and winter, rarely have I seen them make an appearance on menus save a few restaurants in NY, California and Israel. Persimmons with mozzarella and basil, slices of persimmon in salads, pickled persimmons, and persimmon preserves. Typically, the fuyu is used here.
But there’s the one classic American dessert chefs and home cooks have come to associate with the persimmon, but never seem to have prepared when I inquire.
“Ever make a persimmon pudding Angela?” (We often like to dream up little experiments and spectacular cakes we’ll make someday) “No, but I want to. Got two hachiya persimmons I’ve been ripening at the house…”
No time like the present. As we made our way to Napa, we planned to immediately go home, buy a mold, look up some old recipes, and play persimmon pudding in the kitchen.
After a short drive from Oakland, we pulled up to CIA’s Greystone campus. The footpath leading up to the century old estate was pristinely lined with yellow flecked lemon trees.
I took in the quiet, the breeze, and the heady fragrance of citrus in the air. For a moment everything felt in its place.
We waited a few moments in the student bookstore when suddenly, Durfee the smiling, white haired professor and master chef came walking through the halls to meet us. He led us through the classrooms, lecture halls, reception space and into the upstairs kitchen where the students were preparing family meal in their state-of-the-art mock restaurant kitchen.
The students hustled. Young women and men in whites whizzed around with sheet pans calling out “hot” and “behind”. They practiced being on garde manger, pastry, meat cookery, fish cookery, and even expediting as they would in a kitchen with a full brigade system.
We grabbed our roast chicken and mashed potato meals and some seats in the back of the cafeteria-style dining room.
Durfee shared some of his culinary history of Napa with us. “Before I even became a pastry chef, I started working garde manger at The French Laundry when it first opened.”
Durfee chuckled and continued to paint tales of what Yountville, Napa, and the Laundry were like over 30 years ago when the garde manger or cold station helped the pastry chef make puff pastry and temper chocolate. He recalls getting on by sheer luck, moving and learning quickly and lastly with the support of just a few other colleagues working the line, including Thomas Keller.”
This was the stuff of dreams. Sitting in a cafeteria in Napa, talking food, talking shop with two humble, highly skilled pastry chefs who have won the highest possible culinary honor a chef can receive in this country.
And then I thought hmmm…Pastry chef. California. Persimmons. Should I ask?
“Chef, would you happen to have a recipe for persimmon pudding?”
“Are you kidding?! I made three last week! I have the easiest recipe. Angela turned to me and threw her head back laughing, the way she does when she’s tickled. On our way back to Angela’s digs, Chef Stephen friended me on facebook and sent over the recipe.
Without mincing words, it was sent in true chef form, ingredient list with the following: Mix wet ingredients. Mix dry ingredients. Mix wet into dry. Add butter. Steam in greased mold for 75 minutes.
The next day, Angela and I made the pudding. She scooped the persimmons while I measured out the flour and sugar. Together we rigged up a bain marie with a pot she’d brought from NY. An hour and half later, we flipped the mold and out came this perfectly structured, deeply brown steaming cake. Moist, subtly spiced and utterly addictive, this is the cake you want all the time, for dinner, for breakfast or with an afternoon tea.
We tried it plain. We tried it drizzled with chocolate sauce and candied ginger. We served it with a boozy compote of currants, sultanas, orange zest, brandy and spices. We even tried it with mashed banana when we ran out of persimmon. I made it back on the east coast again and again until the Asian grocer across the street was tapped out and the season was over.
Last fall, it was persimmon pudding all over again. Made its way back to a Friday night dinner with friends. I brought up the original fb message with the recipe and handed it off to my friend Sophie. She studied the ingredients and effortlessly prepared the batter while I tended to the mold and bain marie.
I pinged chef Stephen and said, “Making your amazing pudding for dessert.” He responded quickly with “Oh, I’m so glad! I’ve made 25 so far this year.”
Serving Size: Serves 8-10
IngredientsFuyu Persimmons at the Oakland Farmer's Market photo by:Danielle Rehfeld Colen
1 cup Hachiya persimmon puree (Use very soft, ripe fruit)
½ cup whole milk
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
Nonstick cooking spray or melted butter for greasing
InstructionsRipe Hachiya Persimmon Puree photo: By Danielle Rehfeld Colen
1) Blend the persimmon puree, milk, egg and vanilla in a bowl.
2) In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
3) Pour the wet mixture into the dry, and whisk just until combined. Stir in the melted butter.
4) Grease a 4-cup pudding mold and pour in the batter. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the plastic with a fork.
5) Use a pot deep and wide enough to hold the mold comfortably so you can place a lid on the pot. Place a rack inside the pot and the filled mold on the rack. Add just enough water to the bottom of the pot without touching the bottom of the mold.
6) Cover and steam the pudding for 75 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean.
7) Once cool, invert the cake onto a plate or cake stand and serve.
Cook’s Note: The cake can be made up to 3 days in advance. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The cake may be served cold, warm or at room temperature.Stephen Durfee's Persimmon Pudding Photo by: Sunny Tran