When I was an eighth grader at Binford Junior High in Bloomington, Indiana, I once took a biology test that started something like this:
“You are walking in the woods in the early fall and you find a persimmon tree loaded with fruit. So you pick one and take a bite. But it hadn’t been cold enough to frost yet. And that persimmon puckers up your mouth. In fact, it puckers it up so strongly that your whole body begins to pucker up and shrink. You eventually became so small that you could enter into a single cell in the persimmon…”
And then came questions about cell biology, mitosis, and messenger RNA.
I remember being charmed by the question, though a lot of my classmates were flat-out bewildered. Not the ones who lived in the country or whose families foraged the woods, though. They understood. Native persimmons are particular about ripening. It’s generally thought that they need a frost for their flesh to turn soft and sweet. That’s not really true, but they do get ripe around the same time the first frost hits. When ripe, they have an almost vanilla-like flavor, with a touch of spice, some tannin for backbone, and a sweetness that lingers on the tongue. Our persimmons almost puree themselves, so cooks use them in pulp form, most often in the lovely, cake-like persimmon pudding.
When ripe, they have an almost vanilla-like flavor, with a touch of spice, some tannin for backbone, and a sweetness that lingers on the tongue. Our persimmons almost puree themselves, so cooks use them in pulp form, most often in the lovely, cake-like persimmon pudding.
Persimmons grow wild across the eastern U.S., and I’m sure they have fans in many states, but they are an essential taste of southern Indiana, home to Mitchell, Indiana’s Persimmon Festival. That bottom third of Indiana—the unglaciated part—has wooded hills and ravines where people hunt deer, dig ginseng, and look for morels. It can feel more like Appalachia than South Bend. Then there’s Bloomington, home of Indiana University.
My family lived in the university world, which felt insulated from the surrounding area in many ways, as college towns do. But though my father was a college economics professor, he was still, fundamentally, a poor kid from Wichita.
He and my mother made jelly from wild grapes. He spent the winter picking black walnut nutmeats out of their shells. I don’t know if he’d learned about persimmons growing up in Kansas or if he’d caught on after moving to Indiana. He’d pick them from a tree on campus on his way home from work, then send me and my siblings to get more. My mother loved persimmons, too, but she was from California, so she liked the Japanese varieties—Fuyus and Hachiyas. She never quite warmed up to the softer, pulpier, seedier, grainier variety that grows wild in Indiana. Still, she used them to make persimmon pudding in the fall. When I became a baker, I did, too, of course, being more of an actual Hoosier.
To make a persimmon pudding, you must first harvest your fruit. You can’t buy native persimmons at the grocery store. Don’t use any persimmons whose little four-petalled cap doesn’t pull off easily. You want to make sure they’re ripe.
Then, you get out the food mill and separate pulp from seed. The seeds are flat and hard, and the blade of the food mill goes bumpity-bump over them as you turn the handle. Then, you turn the pulp into a pudding—like a plum pudding, not a chocolate pudding. It should be moist, with subtle spicing, served with a spoon rather than a knife. It’s really best when studded with black walnuts or hickory nuts.
My recipe is an old-fashioned one, which relies completely on the persimmon pulp for moisture. It’s been kicking around my family for a while and came originally from a cookbook published in 1938, which called for fifty minutes of steaming. Modern recipes tend to be richer, with eggs and butter and cream, but this recipe showcases the point of the dish: Free foraged foods substitute for more expensive store-bought ingredients.
Polly Campbell's Persimmon Pudding
1 cup flour
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. cinnamon
2⁄3 cup sugar
⅓ cup raisins or currants
½ cup chopped nuts, preferably black walnuts or hickory nuts
1 cup persimmon pulp
⅛ cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, soda, salt, cinnamon, and sugar. Stir in raisins and nuts. Combine remaining ingredients and stir into flour mixture until just combined. Scrape into a greased 8×8 pan and bake for about 20 minutes. Serve warm with hard sauce, whipped cream, or ice cream.
You’ll notice this gets better over several days. The pulp seems to rehydrate it as it sits. I like it with a little cream poured on top of one piece, heated in microwave for no longer than 20 seconds.