Persimmon cake: The winter fruit
Persimmons for me have that special nostalgic power that certain foods or smells or tastes imprint onto children’s brains. For me, it takes me back to Japan, to my grandparent’s house just outside Tokyo. I can see these plump, orange fruits lined up along the wide windowsill, ripening, with the heater burning away underneath. They were taken off the tree before the crows got to them and would be eaten only once they had become jammy and you could slurp it up with a spoon. In Japan, it’s also very common to preserve persimmons by drying them out, and even in the Edo period they used fermented persimmon juice to waterproof paper umbrellas.
The sight of persimmon trees in the winter is always a surprise – naked branches, except for this plump, bright orange fruit, adding splotches of colour against an often misty, bare landscape. I was really surprised when I first moved to Italy to find that not only were persimmons everywhere to be seen here in the winter, but that they were called cachi – exactly the same as their name in Japanese, kaki.
In reality, they are an Asian fruit even though Europeans have known them for a while – the Ancient Greeks called them the “fruit of the gods,” and they were a hit in Italy when they arrived in the 19th century.
If they are even slightly unripe they have a really astringent quality (think of a really, really dry red wine) that make your lips pucker, so they are best used when they are overly mature and become sweet and fragrant, which is when they are also perfect for making into jams and cakes. If you get them when they are still hard and unripe, just leave them where they are exposed to light (frost will help too, if you have a windowsill or a place outside to put them) until they ripen. They can get very, very soft before you use them.
This year we were given a bag of ripe persimmons from my husband’s grandmother’s tree, which was promptly made into jam with some apples and a bit of ginger.
While visiting my lovely friend Rosa over the New Year near Trento in the north of Italy, we made a cake out of persimmons from the tree in the garden that was so delicious I had to copy down the recipe. There’s no butter at all in it, but it’s amazingly moist and delicate and so simple to make. We had the added bonus of being able to use hazelnuts from the garden as well, which were just pulsed in a food processor – for those with nut allergies, you can substitute with 100 grams of flour. It will result in a slightly drier cake but just as delicious.
Rosa’s Torta di Cachi or Persimmon cake
- 200 grams of flour
- 100 grams of ground hazlenut
- 170 grams of brown sugar
- 2 whole eggs
- 50 ml of olive oil
- 1 packet of dry yeast (in Italy, these are little packages of raising agent for cakes that can be bought in the supermarket. A teaspoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt can be substituted).
- Zest of one lemon
- 600 grams of persimmon pulp (about 6 persimmons, take out the stem then scoop out the flesh from the skin and break it up with a fork)
- icing sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Beat the eggs with the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the oil in a thin, steady stream while mixing. Then add the lemon zest and the persimmon pulp and mix. Finally, add the flour, hazelnuts and raising agent and mix until just combined. Pour the mixture into a lined and greased cake tin (about 26cm in diameter) and bake for 40 minutes. When cooled, dust with icing sugar. It’s beautiful with a dollop of ricotta or freshly whipped cream.