His name was Clifford. According to my mother, he was the son of my father’s first cousin once removed, but as far as I was concerned, he was a spawn of Satan. Clifford taught me how to roll rabbit tobacco, what a wedgie is, and made me eat my first (and only) Irish plum.
It’s quite possible that the reason most people in my part of the world aren’t accustomed to cooking with persimmons is because they were tricked into eating an unripe persimmon as a child. That’s what Clifford called an Irish plum, and it sure looked like a green plum, which should have clued me in on not eating it in the first place. Anyone who bites into an unripe persimmon will never forget the experience; it’s agonizingly, mouth-puckeringly astringent; the tannins in the green fruit turn spit into chalk.
The fruit Cliff dared me to eat (successfully) was the fruit of the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). American persimmons are astringent. They really don’t need a frost to ripen; that’s more or less a rule of thumb, but a frost will cause ripe fruit to fall. Ripe American persimmons have a wrinkled, waxy, reddish-orange skin, and while they don’t have a lot of pulp, it has a deep, unique, molasses-y taste.
The most common persimmon you’ll find in markets is the non-astringent Oriental, Chinese, or Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki). This non-astringent persimmon—usually referred to as fuyu—isn’t totally free of tannins, but are far less astringent when green and lose their tannins sooner. These persimmons are the national fruit of Japan, a symbol of autumn in much the same way pumpkins are in the United States. In Buddhism, they are symbols of transformation: green persimmons are bitter, representing ignorance; sweet, ripened fruits represent the wisdom that comes with maturity.
If the persimmons you buy in the store have even the faintest tinge of green, let them to sit at room temperature in natural light for a couple of days or put the persimmons in a paper bag along with pieces of apples, bananas, or pears. These fruits give off ethylene gas, which helps the persimmons to ripen more quickly as well. Once ripe, persimmons can be stored in the refrigerator and should be eaten or used within three days. The Persimmon Festival held every September in Mitchell, Indiana, hosts a contest for persimmon pudding, a baked dessert with the consistency of sweet potato pie. To Hoosiers, this dish is sacred, and purists insist on fully-ripened native fruit, but most all the rest of us must make do with fuyu.
Peel and chop five ripe (fuyu) persimmons until smooth and strain. You should get about two cups of pulp; if you don’t, add another persimmon. Blend pulp with two beaten eggs and two cups sugar until smooth. Stir a teaspoon of baking soda into a cup of buttermilk. Add to persimmon mixture along with 1 ½ cups flour sifted with a tablespoon of baking powder. Stir in a quarter stick melted butter, a teaspoon vanilla, and a dash or so of cinnamon. Pour into a buttered dish and bake at 350 until firm and set, about an hour or so.