October 26, 2017
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The Fruit of Japanese Fairy Tales
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When you get them in season, persimmons are a perfect ingredient for both folklore and layer cakes.

The bright orange globe of the persimmon is bitter, astringent, and thoroughly unpleasant if you approach it before it’s ready, but when you catch it at the right time, it’s fragrant, lovely, and delicious. Perhaps that’s why I love them: We have so much in common.

When you grow up in Northern California, you see persimmon trees everywhere, especially when you get a couple hours outside of San Francisco and the wineries and roadside farms are littered with them. There is something so strikingly beautiful about the orange orbs that hang on the dark branches long after all the leaves have succumbed to autumn. Like a Christmas tree out of a gothic fairy tale. When I was a kid, my mom brought home huge bags of Fuyu persimmons from the farmers’ market in the fall, and I would eagerly grab them out of her basket, peel them, and crunch them like apples. I loved their sweet, colorful, cinnamon-spiced taste so much that I ate them until I made myself sick.

I associate persimmons deeply with my childhood, both because I ate them and because they have a bit of folklore surrounding them. In Japan there is a fairy tale about a monkey, a crab, and a persimmon tree. A monkey trades a crab a persimmon seed for her rice ball (he thinks he’s being awfully clever). When the crab’s seed turns into a big, beautiful tree that bears lovely ripe persimmons, the monkey returns to steal them all from the poor crab. When she tries to stop him, he throws unripe fruit at her and leaves her for dead. The crab’s children team up with an egg, a piece of kelp, a bee, and an usu (the mortar and pestle used to make mochi) to teach the crab a lesson. Long story short, the fairy tale ends with the monkey’s comeuppance via exploding egg, stinging bee, slippery kelp, and death by falling usu. I’m not entirely sure what the moral of this story is, except that persimmons are highly coveted and that you should never mess with the offspring of a crab.

In Korea, persimmons are said to protect you from tigers. In the Ozarks they say that cutting open persimmon seeds will reveal the severity of winter. If the kernel on the inside of the seed is shaped like a spoon, you will have a lot of snow to shovel up. If it’s shaped like a fork, you will have a light winter. If it’s shaped like a knife, the winter will bring cold winds that cut like a blade. So there you have it. A thoroughly useful fruit.

On the other hand, it’s produce that I believe is underappreciated. Perhaps their small window of seasonality/edibility (generally from October to February) makes them a hit-or-miss option for many people. There are two types of persimmons: Fuyus, which are squat, thin-skinned, and eaten when they are still crunchy, and Hachiyaa, which are larger, pointed at the bottom, and thicker-skinned and absolutely must be eaten when the flesh inside has become soft and jelly-like. There are few things more unpleasant than an unripe Hachiya. Its astringency will immediately make your tongue feel like it’s covered in a hideous orange shag carpet.

Unripe Hachiya persimmons do have one use, which is to make hoshigaki, the very old-school Japanese-style dried persimmon that you have probably seen on a lot of chefs’ Instagrams during the fall months. To be fair, it is a rather aesthetically pleasing drying process. The unripe persimmons are peeled and tied to bamboo poles, which are hung outside in the cool, fragrant, clean air. Or, if you’re like me and at one point had no choice but to make them in a kitchen in the Mission district of San Francisco, you hang them up inside and as far away from outside as possible.

However, just because you’ve managed to peel them and tie them with butchers’ twine onto a pole does not mean you’ve made hoshigaki. If you leave them like this you’ll just get a dried persimmon, which is a common mistake. The persimmons need a daily massage while they are hanging, which brings the natural sugars to the surface so the fruit becomes covered in a light dusting of white bloom. You must be very careful to apply the correct amount of pressure and care to each fruit. If you do this, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful orange confection dusted white with the texture of a gummy bear.

Maya Okada Erickson is TASTE’s Baker In Residence.

I have used persimmons in many of my desserts, including ice creams, pudding cakes, semifreddos, pickles, and pate de fruit. One of my favorite desserts I made was when I was the pastry chef at Lazy Bear in San Francisco. I paired persimmon with malt, chocolate, and root beer spices. The warm spices of the sassafras and sarsaparilla brought out the natural spiciness of the persimmon, and the malt and chocolate added bitter earthiness to ground such a floral and heady fruit. I have used these same flavors to make a layer cake that I think would be lovely for a fall dinner party or just as a snack.

Layered Persimmon Cake

Layered Persimmon Cake

6-8 servings

Ingredients

  • Butter Cake
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 3½ cups cake flour, sifted
  • 1½ teaspoons ground sarsparilla
  • 1½ teaspoons ground sassafras
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 2 cups sugar, divided
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup milk
  • Persimmon Jam
  • 2 cups persimmon puree
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pectin
  • salt, to taste
  • Chocolate Ganache
  • 8 ounces high-quality dark chocolate (I used Valrhona 70%)
  • ¾ cups heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • salt, to taste
  • Malted Buttercream
  • 6 egg whites
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 1 pound butter, softened
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • ¼ cup malted milk powder

This cake has it all: layers of spiced butter cake between persimmon jam, chocolate ganache, and malted buttercream. Get creative with the garnish, and add flowers, fresh persimmon slices, chocolate swirls, or really anything you’d like.

    Butter Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare cake pans.
  2. Separate eggs and sift together flour, spices, salt, and baking powder.
  3. Begin creaming butter until soft, then add 1 1/2 cups of sugar and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Incorporate yolks and vanilla. Mix until well combined. Alternate adding the flour mix and milk, starting and ending with the flour.
  4. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites and gradually add in the remaining ½ cup of sugar. Whip until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites into batter in two additions.
  5. Divide among cake pans and bake until a knife inserted comes out clean, about 20-30 minutes.

Persimmon Jam

  1. Combine the puree and lemon juice and bring up to a simmer in a sauce pot. Whisk together the sugar and pectin and incorporate it into the warm puree. Cook at a low heat until thickened and shiny.

Chocolate Ganache

  1. Chop chocolate into medium-size pieces and add the cubed butter. Bring cream just up to a boil. Pour the hot cream over chocolate and let sit for a few minutes. Whisk the ganache until homogenized.

Malted Buttercream

  1. Combine egg whites and sugar in a mixing bowl and set over a pan of simmering water. Let stand over the water until the mixture is warm to the touch. Whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add the butter in small increments. Keep whipping until the butter has completely incorporated and the frosting is fluffy. Add vanilla bean, malt powder and a pinch of salt.

To Assemble the Cake

  1. Slice the layers of cake in half. Alternate layers filled with the jam and chocolate ganache. Frost the cake with the buttercream. After layering is complete, finish off with a chocolate ganache layer on top. Garnish with flowers, meringue sticks, chocolate curls, fresh persimmon slices, or whatever you feel like.

Maya Okada Erickson

Maya Okada Erickson is the pastry chef at Langbaan in Portland, OR, and TASTE's first Baker in Residence. You can find her on Instagram as @tuilesfromthecrypt.

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