Finally, there is cake worth writing about. I’ve made six cakes in the last six weeks. Each of them disappointed in some way, but this one (rich with persimmon puree, laced with whiskey, studded with dates and walnuts), this is a Very Good Cake.
This is not a cake to be taken lightly. It’s not your typical sugary confection. For a start, it’s not covered in frothy icing (don’t even think about it) and its brown and nubbly interior isn’t exactly attractive. It’s not going to win #cakeoftheday for its looks, but it is completely above such frivolity anyway. It’s a seriously good cake and it deserves to be treated as such. In fact, even though I baked it in a cake tin, it’s not proper to call it “cake”. The recipe comes from the godfather of American cooking, James Beard, who called it Persimmon Bread. My grandmother would have called it Persimmon Loaf, and served it cut in thin slices lightly spread with butter (of course, Nana wins).
I’ve had the idea of persimmon cake in my head for the past couple of years. Persimmons are a fruit that I have learned to love, baking them into crumbles with apples and ginger, adding them to salads or simply eating them in thin, raw slices. In Australia, it is the crisp fuyu variety that is readily available in shops, but that was always fine with me – a traumatic childhood encounter with a squishy soft hachiya persimmon had left me suspicious of hachiya. This silly prejudice was challenged when I spotted a recipe for Gâteaux aux Kakis (Persimmon Bread) on David Lebovitz’s blog; an adaptation of a recipe created by James Beard in his definitive 1973 text Beard on Bread. The pedigree of the recipe was enough to peak my interest, but when David lamented that the French, just like Americans, don’t know what to do with hachiya persimmon, I felt a little sorry for this poor misunderstood fruit. David waxed lyrical about its flavour and I sensed a Very Good Cake in the making.
It turns out that hachiya persimmons are quite difficult to track down. A few weeks ago I finally spotted their characteristically elongated shape at the market in an inconspicuous box labelled “Old Fashioned Persimmons”. They were dirt cheap, because clearly Australians don’t know what to do with them either. After purchasing three persimmons, I took them home to ripen. Hachiya persimmons must be eaten ripe. When under-ripe and firm, they taste horribly astringent but when fully ripe, their flesh turns to a sweet, silky jelly. Their colour deepens to a tomato-red, and they feel heavy and soft; says David: “like a water balloon about to burst” (don’t lose your nerve; just go with it). I discovered that hachiya persimmons dance to the tune of their own drum and a full two weeks later one of my three was finally ripe, one was almost ripe and the third was as hard as a rock. David and James’ recipe uses four ripe persimmons, so I was forced to find a different recipe which turned out to be boring and bland. This failure came hot on the heels of four weeks of cake-disasters, including an over-sweet plum cake and three attempts at a promising-but-not-delivering apple and lemon cake. I almost gave up this latest attempt at the Very Good Cake project but fortunately (for me and you) I tried again.
The next time I bought persimmons I selected six. Four ripened almost immediately so we were in business. Beard’s recipe makes a surprisingly large quantity and is meant to be baked in two loaf tins. I only have one, so the remaining mixture went into a ringed cake tin which I tipped out, levelled off, flipped, and sprinkled with icing sugar for a quick dessert with friends. It was good, but nowhere near as good as the other one, baked in a loaf tin with the top deeply cracked and vaguely leathery in texture. I sliced my loaf and put it in the freezer, and two weeks later, morning tea at work is still the highlight of my day. Persimmon pulp freezes well too, and the fifth persimmon now sits in the freezer waiting to be joined by the sixth persimmon, which remains defiantly firm and inedible. This fruit might be freaky, fickle and hard to find, but please persist – it makes a loaf/bread/cake that is well worth writing about and even more worth eating.
Persimmon Loaf with Whiskey & Walnuts
3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup whiskey (bourbon or brandy can also be used, but I haven’t tried these)
2 cups persimmon puree (from about 4 ripe hachiya persimmons)
2 cups walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
2 cups dates, roughly chopped
Butter 2 loaf tins (or small round or ring cake tins) and line the bottoms with baking paper. Preheat the oven to180ºC / 350ºF.
First prepare the wet ingredients. Scrape the persimmon puree into a medium bowl and blitz with a stick blender to make a uniform puree (or leave it as is – it really doesn’t seem to make a difference). To the same bowl, add the whisky, melted and cooled butter, and lightly beaten eggs. Stir to combine.
Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and nutmeg into a large bowl (use your largest as the recipe makes large quantity, and you will need room to stir). Add the sugar and whisk together with the other dry ingredients to combine.
Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the wet ingredients along with the chopped dates and walnuts. Stir together until fully combined. Do not over mix. Pour into the prepared tins and bake for approximately one hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.