It’s often said that patience is a virtue and good things come to those who wait. This is especially true when it comes to Hachiya persimmons, an obscure and misunderstood winter fruit known as kaki to the Japanese and cachi to Italians. These persimmons are often confused with the flatter Fuyu variety that is eaten firm like an apple early in the season. But Hachiya persimmons—whose inviting shiny orange, pointed forms make them tempting to enjoy when they are young—must mature and soften for weeks on end before they are edible. It makes January the perfect month to make this Persimmon and Pecan Bread when fruit that has been slowly ripening on the window sill is very soft and ready for use. Hachiya persimmon’s delicate sweetness and alluring fragrance give this simple bread an air of aristocracy that makes it ideal for afternoon tea or a luxurious breakfast in bed…and well worth waiting for.
A seasonal fruit with oriental origins, Hachiya persimmons first appear on leafy trees in late autumn. But their beauty is not fully evident until winter when the tree sheds its leaves to reveal bare branches hung with brightly colored, heart-shaped fruit—making it look like a timely Charlie Brown Christmas tree strung with shiny ornaments. The fruit is firm and immature at this point and must ripen further to allow harsh tannins to mellow and sweetness to develop. Take them home and place on your counter or window sill and watch the change that occurs as they mature. I fill an antique wooden bowl with vibrant orange persimmons and use as a cheerful decorative item in my home while they ripen.
As they ripen, persimmons slowly soften and become darker in color until finally—after two to four weeks—they are mature enough to eat or cook with. You can see the change happening in stages as they go from hard, yellow-orange pointed fruit to red-orange slouchy orbs with loose, wrinkled skin. At the perfect point of ripeness, they look like water balloons—heavy, jiggly and ready to burst. Don’t be tempted to eat them before this time or you’ll experience a very unpleasant astringent aftertaste in your mouth. To speed up the ripening process, some people freeze partially ripe persimmons for 24 hours then thaw before cooking. In a pinch, this can help soften the fruit and reduce tannins, but they won’t be as sweet or mellow as naturally ripened persimmons. Be patient with persimmons and you will be rewarded!
Food memories are precious things and I still recall the first time I tasted a persimmon. It was at Torre di Pisa restaurant in Milan, where I was dining with my then-boyfriend in the dead of winter. “I took the liberty of ordering you dessert since they have a very special fruit that is only available for a very short time”, said Maurizio as the waiter slid a plate in front of me. Expecting to see colorful tropical fruit, I looked down to find a wrinkly, burnt-orange blob on my plate that looked less than appealing. Slightly puzzled I asked, “What do I do with it?” Maurizio laughed, “Make a cross cut in the center and open it like a flower, then eat the inside with a spoon…like pudding.” I followed instructions and slid my knife through the paper-thin skin then repeated the motion crosswise. The persimmon fell open like four petals in a sensual display of glistening, jelly-like pulp that beckoned a taste. I dipped my spoon in and scooped some out. It was shiny and syrupy—more like soft jelly than raw fruit—and very much what in Italy we call dolci da cucchiaio or spoon desserts like creme caramel and panna cotta. When I lifted the spoon to my mouth, a delicate floral scent filled my senses like fine perfume. The taste in my mouth was…well, luscious. Silky and sweet with a hypnotic exotic fruit flavor and lingering vanilla finish. I was mesmerized and fell in love immediately (with the persimmon, not with Maurizio).
Over the years, I continued my love affair with persimmons and searched them out each winter at my neighborhood fruttivendoli in Milan. But it was only after moving to California—and once I was teaching Italian cooking and developing my own recipes—that I became intrigued with the idea of a persimmon bread. I began experimenting to get the right balance of sweetness, wet to dry ingredients, and leavening to make a moist yet light fruit bread that showcased persimmon’s delicate flavor and fragrance. The decision to add pecans, with their subtle buttery nuttiness, was the natural choice to quietly complement persimmon’s ethereal qualities without overpowering them.
The batter for Persimmon and Pecan Bread is simple and easy to prepare. Cut open ripe persimmons and scoop out the pudding-like pulp then strain it through a sieve so it’s silky smooth and free of unwanted seeds or fibers. Measure out the amount that you need for the recipe but don’t waste any leftover puree! Persimmon puree freezes well and keeps for up to 6 months. Just thaw and use like fresh to make persimmon and pecan bread well into the spring.
The secret to a light, airy bread is to mix the dry ingredients together first then add them to the wet ingredients with a few quick folding motions until just combined. Don’t overwork the batter or the baked bread will be heavy and rubbery. Then, stir in the toasted pecans and pour the thick batter into a loaf pan. Bake until you can smell a sweet, flowery fragrance wafting out of your oven and the bread is golden orangey-brown on top and set in the center.
Some things are well worth waiting for and perfectly ripened Hachiya persimmons are one of those. Now, I look forward to winter just to patiently watch these gorgeous persimmons ripen to perfection so I can enjoy this Persimmon and Pecan Bread. I hope you will too!