Native Persimmons

Now, Forager

One of my favorite novels--one that has all the best ingredients--is Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles, the story of a young Missouri woman who is wrongfully imprisoned during the Civil War and the improbable love she finds with her Yankee captor. Adair Colley  has such a real voice--and she loves native persimmons--as you can tell from her "confession" to Major William Neumann:
In the fall persimmins  were plentiful as well as apples and I liked to put them in a bowl together because of their colors. We roasted the apples and had them with cream. The colors were also beautiful, the cream being a pale yellow and the apple carmine. You put maple sugar all over this, as much as you can get away with.
People like the fictional Colley family used to forage in the fall for native persimmons, black walnuts, and hickory nuts. Today, the locavore movement has made foraging chic again. You can’t get much more local than a plant native to the area.  So, inventive chefs are putting foraged foods on their menus, from bland, sweet mulberries and tannic wild plums in desserts to elderflower foams and local honey infused with wild rose hips for entrees. 

Foraging has also gotten high tech. Jonathan Justus, owner and chef at Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri, uses a GPS navigation system, so he can identify and go back to the area where he finds his goodies—wild rose hips, black walnuts, or elderberries.
Foraging is also about nostalgia—a hankering for the seasonal dishes your grandma used to make with foods gathered from the wild. Retirees in Wisconsin and Indiana have their own cottage industries gathering labor-intensive hickory nuts (nutmeats picked out of the shell) and persimmons (skinned, seeded, then pulped), preparing them for sale each autumn.
We’re coming into the season for native persimmons, when they’re so ripe they fall off the trees. They have to be perfectly ripe and soft before you can eat them without puckering up.  They’re sweet and bland, much like cultivated persimmons and somewhat like winter squash or pumpkin.
If you know of a grove of persimmon trees, you can go out and gather your own.  Sometimes, farmer’s markets (like Brookside Farmer’s Market in Kansas City, MO) known for organic produce will have some that a farmer has gathered.

Or, you have to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. . .
When you get them home, simply use a food mill to remove the small seeds and the skins so you have persimmon pulp, which you can freeze for up to 1 year.

In recipes, you can substitute pureed squash or canned pumpkin.
Here’s Persimmon Bread Pudding with Warm Cider Caramel
that can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner with all the favorite flavors of fall—including persimmon--from Heartland: The Cookbook. It's easy to make, and it has a wonderful cider caramel sauce that just melts together in a saucepan.

Persimmon Bread Pudding with Warm Cider Caramel
Is this a brunch dish—or a dessert?  Just for autumn or any time of year? You be the judge. In my opinion, this luscious bread pudding baked in a springform pan is delicious at any meal all year long. It looks great on a cake pedestal and can be made ahead, so it’s perfect for entertaining. If you can get your hands on native persimmon pulp, go for it.  If not, use canned pumpkin or pureed squash or sweet potato.  I love the cake spice mixture from Penzey’s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but you can also use pumpkin pie spice. The Warm Cider Caramel is an easy version that makes up in minutes.
Serves 12 to 16
4 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
2 cups native persimmon pulp or 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 teaspoon cake spice or pumpkin pie spice
¼ teaspoon fine kosher or sea salt
20 (1/2-inch thick) slices soft but firm bread like challah
¼ cup pecans, chopped, optional
¼ cup dark brown sugar, packed
Warm Cider Caramel:
2/3 cup light or dark brown sugar, packed
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups apple cider
6 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt or to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter the inside of a 10-inch springform pan and wrap the outside with aluminum foil. Set the springform pan in a roasting pan.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, egg yolks, and granulated sugar together until smooth. Whisk in the vanilla extract, cream, milk, persimmon, cake spice, and salt. Dip the bread slices, one by one, in the egg mixture and arrange in an overlapping pattern that rises in the center in the prepared pan. You will use about half of the egg mixture for the slices. Carefully pour the remaining custard over the slices and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
3. Make a water bath by pouring about 3 cups hot tap water in the roasting pan so that the water comes about halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Bake for 45 minutes.
4. Combine the chopped pecans and brown sugar. Remove the bread pudding from the oven and sprinkle this mixture on topping. Return the bread pudding to the oven and bake for 15 additional minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then carefully peel back the aluminum foil, lift the pan out of the water bath and remove the sides.
5. For the Warm Cider Caramel, whisk the brown sugar and cornstarch together in a large saucepan. Press out any lumps with your fingers. Stir in the cider and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until large bubbles form around the perimeter of the pan and the sauce thickens, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream, butter, and salt. Serve drizzled over the cake.

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