For anybody unfamiliar with the pretty orange fruits, American persimmons are native, highly nutritious, and were prized by American Indians and early settlers. They also make a fabulous cake! A few years back, I went on a Fall jaunt to persimmon-expert Jerry Lehman’s 85-acre orchard in southwestern Vigo County, Indiana, to experience these fruits firsthand.
Right out of the car, I learned that what looks ripe on the tree, may not be ready to eat: Bite into an unripe American persimmon and the tannins make your mouth feel as if you’re chewing on a cross between aspirin, alum, and chalk. But ripened till they’re very, very soft–a process called “bletting,” persimmons have a beautiful, caramel sweetness all their own. (Tip: you may find piles of what look like “gone bad” persimmons on the “reduced for quick sale” racks at the grocery, but they’re probably not bad at all! The deeper the orange and the softer the fruit the better.)
At Jerry’s orchard, I learned that the fruits are allowed to fully ripen on the tree until they drop to the ground, to be carefully plucked up by harvesters making their way along the tree rows. Research from Slow Food USA (which includes the American persimmon in its Ark of Taste) shows that Native Americans mixed the fruit with corn meal and acorns to make breads and soups. African Americans used the pulp to make sweet puddings, candy, and cakes. Early settlers roasted the seeds to make something like coffee. And Appalachians brewed dried persimmon seeds into a kind of beer.
While you can find wild American persimmon trees from Connecticut to Florida and as far west as Texas, the bulk of persimmon production in the United States has centered in Indiana. There a woman named Dymple Green commercially canned American persimmon marketed as a product called “Dymple’s Delight.” We adapted this recipe from a little booklet Dymple put together in the ’70s featuring persimmon puddings, breads, candies and cakes. I think the caramel icing perfectly highlights the already-caramel-ly overtones of the ripe fruit. If you can’t find local persimmons, the larger Fuyu or Hachiya varieties will also work. Note: While Fuyu’s are nonastringent, and can be eaten when firm, for this recipe, you will want them to be well-ripened and soft.
FOR THE PERSIMMON PULP:
• 2 cups, store bought, or 2 cups made from 10 to 12 very ripe American persimmons, or 2 cups made from 6 to 8 of the larger, Asian persimmon varieties
FOR THE SPICE CAKE:
• 2 cups sugar
• 1 cup vegetable oil (grapeseed, canola or corn work well)
• 4 eggs, beaten well
• 2 cups persimmon pulp
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 tsp each baking powder and baking soda
• 1 tsp each salt, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg
FOR THE CARAMEL ICING:
• 1 stick butter
• 1 cup brown sugar, packed
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 1/4 cup milk
• 2 cups powdered sugar
• 1/2 tsp vanilla
MAKE PERSIMMON PULP: Place persimmons in a colander or large strainer. Wash with plenty of cold, clear water. Remove stems and leaves. Peel. If using American persimmons: Process persimmon through a food mill, discarding seeds. For other varieties, use an immersion blender or food processor to blend the fruit until smooth. (Since you are using very-ripe persimmons, this will be quick.) You should have at least two cups of persimmon pulp.
MAKE CAKE: Cream sugar, oil, eggs, and persimmon together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Sift together dry ingredients and add in two batches to the wet ingredients, stirring until no flour streaks remain. Spray nonstick spray on two nine-inch cake pans and line with parchment paper. Pour batter into pans. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool cakes in pans on racks for 15 minutes. Remove cakes to racks.
MAKE CARAMEL FROSTING: Melt butter in large saucepan. Blend in brown sugar and salt. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring continually. Add milk and continue stirring until mixture heats to boiling. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk in powdered sugar, adding vanilla at the end and whisking one more time. Ice cake immediately as caramel frosting will “set up” and begin to harden.