As I dipped my spoon into the steamy rust-colored persimmon pudding, the rich, spicy aroma wafted from the dish. A little of the accompanying cream ran into my spoon and mixed with the pudding. The flavor of this unique fruit and dessert signify the holidays for me.
For many years my sister-in-law, an Indiana native, has given me the gift of a tub of Indiana wild persimmon paste. It usually arrives in the fall, typically just before Thanksgiving. My favorite thing to do with this paste is to turn it into persimmon pudding. I have tended to make this delicious pudding as one of the desserts for Thanksgiving dinner. When served warm with a bit of fresh cream overtop, it is divine.
What is a Persimmon?
American persimmons are native to southern Indiana and ripen in September and October, making them the perfect holiday fruit. When ripe, their flavor is nicely sweet in a complex sort of way.
Unfortunately for me, I don’t live in a part of the country where persimmons grow, so I pick them up in the grocery stores, which are currently carrying both the Fuyu and Hachiya varieties.
This year I’ve decided to branch out and mess around with using persimmons in other ways. The Fuyu variety I purchased this year is still firm when they are ripe, so I figured they would hold up well when roasted or broiled. The oven heat will serve to concentrate the flavors and amp up their already sweet nature.
Roasted Persimmon Salad
I start by slicing one of the persimmons into thin wedges. Then I brush the wedges with olive oil and roast them in a high heat oven (425 degrees F) until they turn brown on the edges.
While these are roasting, I whisk together a citrus/olive oil vinaigrette, slice some roasted beets and a clementine. Once the persimmons are ready, I arrange all the components on plates. I add Lacinato kale and microgreens and then drizzle vinaigrette over the top. Crushed black pepper and chunky sea salt round out the dish. This gorgeous deconstructed salad will serve as the first course at one of my holiday dinners.
Let’s now move on to my next idea, broiling them much like I would fresh plums. For this I take slices of a crusty baguette and top each slice with a piece of soft triple cream cheese. I then place a thin sliver of fresh persimmon on top. I again brush the persimmon with olive oil.
To add a little sweet crunch, I sprinkle on a bit of raw sugar. I place them under the broiler, and a few minutes later out come the prettiest crostini I have seen in a long time. The sweet roasted fruit proved to be a great counter to the pungent cheese. A new go-to hors d’oeuvres is born.
Spilling Persimmons Over Goat Cheese
The inspiration keeps flowing with my next plan for my persimmons. I love warm spilling fruits. For this I usually take fruits like plums, pears, peaches, or berries and combine them with sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla. After gently simmering them for a few minutes on the stove, the fruit breaks down and forms the most delectable sauce.
I can use these spilling sauces over a myriad of dishes including pound cakes or olive oil cakes, cheesecake or panna cotta, goat or brie cheese, or prosciutto on a savory tart. I can also use it as a marinade and dipping sauce for roasted pork or chicken.
It turns out that persimmons lend themselves perfectly to this application. When simmered with a little sugar, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and then pureed with the stick blender, the persimmons make the prettiest and most delicious sauce. I spoon some over a log of goat cheese and serve it with baguette slices. What a perfect start to my holiday culinary journey.
So the Creating Continues
Persimmons, a seemingly forgotten fruit, prove to be versatile, delicious, and beautiful. They have definitely earned a place in my holiday repertoire alongside the other winter fruits such as pomegranates, oranges, pears, and grapefruit. They have even made an appearance in my newly released holiday card collection. I’m sure I’ll be dreaming up other dishes with this fruit soon. Dehydrated persimmon chips, persimmon salsa chutney, fruit leathers, persimmon jam, persimmon sorbet, persimmon cocktails… Persimmon prosciutto pizza, anyone?
The year was 1977. My parents, brother, and I were spending the year in Strasbourg, France. As the end of November neared, we started to think about how we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving. In discussing with friends, we realized something we should have already known, that Thanksgiving is American. No other country celebrates this holiday. In France the fourth Thursday of November is like any other Thursday in the calendar year.
The simple act of purchasing a turkey proved futile. As it turns out, turkeys are an American phenomenon. We located cranberries (also a North American thing) and pumpkin, and so a Thanksgiving feast was cobbled together.
In an unconventional situation, we made the intentional decision to pivot, to do our own version of this meal, Alsatian style, and use what was available in the bountiful French markets. A plump chicken became the entree. We filled in with locally available items. That year was an adventure, and the Thanksgiving holiday was in keeping. We had great fun making up our own French version of a meal that typically remains rather set in stone.
Our Minimalist Holiday
As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I can’t help but remember that meal in France. This year, we are being asked to do something very different, to scale back our Thanksgiving celebrations. We must pivot and create a different sort of holiday.
In this spirit of minimalism, the idea of small bits or portions becomes an enticing concept. By creating small desserts just for you and those in your home, you can explore untried recipes. Consider venturing outside your comfort zone. Since this isn’t the year you are feeding 20 at the dinner table, experimenting is in order.
Single serving items such as mini pies or tartlets can be both fun to make as well as flexible for a small group. The individual nature of these desserts also make them ideal for sharing with others, be it neighbors, a family member, or a friend who is isolating and can’t be with loved ones this year.
Understanding Pie Crust
Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to make a tender flaky pie crust. The crust is the foundation of any pastry. I’ve obsessed for decades to perfect the flakiest and most tender pie crust. Let me begin by explaining flakiness. In any baked good, it’s the fat that makes for tenderness. When making cookies or cake, the softened fat incorporates into the mixture so that the particles are very evenly dispersed throughout the dough. This causes the end product to be evenly tender.
With a baked good that needs to end up flaky, you need to take some specific steps in the process of making the pastry dough. In this situation, you want the fat to stay fairly firm. You do not want it to be evenly dispersed but rather to remain in small pieces. Thus, when rolled out, it forms long, flat strips in the dough. There are variations to this dough, but this greater category is called laminated dough, meaning the fat is laminated throughout the dough. The same general concept applies to all flaky pastries, including croissants, puff pastry, turnovers, and of course, pie crust.
Much discussion remains in the pie crust baking world (this, most likely, consists of a very small contingent of people), about which type of fat to use, lard, butter, and/or shortening. For several reasons, I fall into the “all-butter” camp. Butter makes for a very flaky end product. This is because when baked, the water that is in the melted butter creates steam inside the dough, creating the characteristic flakes in your pastry. Secondly, butter tastes like, well, butter. And who can argue with that?
Making the Pie Crust
To achieve this flakiness, there are several steps that have to be taken. First, make sure that your butter is firm to the touch. Leave it in the fridge until just before you start to make your pie dough. The next essential step is to fill a bowl full of ice water. I do this at the beginning so the ice cubes can start to melt, making the water as cold as possible. After you prepare your water, mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Slice the larger portions of butter into tablespoon-sized pieces.
Add these to the flour, mix with a pastry blender, two knives, an electric mixer, or even your fingers. Watch out on this step. Only mix until the fat is in pea-sized pieces. This can happen very quickly and you don’t want to over-mix. Next, add the ice-cold water. Again, be careful on this step to not over-mix. The dough should be just coming together, very “piecey” at this point. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and with your hands, bring it together into a ball. There should still be visible pieces of butter in the dough.
The Next Steps
At this point, I rest the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This resting allows the gluten to relax, making it much easier to roll out. To do this, I divide the dough into the amount I’ll need for rolling out later. Usually a single recipe makes 2 crusts, so you would divide the dough into two balls. I flatten these balls into disks and wrap with plastic wrap. Place them into the refrigerator. You can also freeze the dough at this point for use at a later time.
When it’s time to roll out the pie crust, simply place the disk on a floury surface, using a rolling pin, roll, starting in the center of the disk, working out in all directions. As you roll out the dough, you should see the little pieces of fat flatten into strips. This is what will produce flakiness. Here is my recipe:
Cami’s Pie Crust
Note: the water used can fluctuate by a tablespoon or so, depending on whether the dough is being mixed by hand or by machine.
Ingredients: 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons granulated sugar, if desired 1 teaspoon salt 14 tablespoons butter, chilled, divided into pieces 6 tablespoons (approximately) ice water, as needed
Mix flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl.
Working quickly, mix in the pieces of butter using a pastry blender until they are small pea-sized pieces throughout the dough.
Sprinkle in the ice water several tablespoons at a time, working the water into the dough. Don’t overmix. Gather the dough into a ball, working in a circular fashion, form two disks. Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Roll dough out on a floured surface, working the rolling pin from the center of the disk out toward the edges.
Once the crust is rolled out, use it as desired, following the directions of the pie or tartlet recipe you are making.
New Thanksgiving Pie Fillings
The frosting on the cake, so to speak, for pies, is the filling you choose to put into your amazingly tender flaky crusts. I tend to gravitate toward the fruits that are in season at Thanksgiving. Many of these are unheralded, the reasons for which are beyond me. One of my favorites is pears. Pears are at their peak in the end of November with many varieties from which to choose. They create a delicate, creamy flavor when baked. Versatility is a key attribute as they move easily between hors d’oeuvres and desserts.
Other fall picks you can include are apples, plums, quince, persimmons, cranberries, figs, kumquats, sweet potatoes, or squash. Just like pears, these all move easily across the spectrum of a meal. They are as perfect used in an appetizer, as a compote for a roast, as a topping or filling for a dessert. These cool days also lend themselves to the richness of nuts. Currently, I’m particularly fond of hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts. Incorporating one of these into a chocolate tart will solve most of the world’s problems. At least it will be a delectable distraction. I could go on, but you get my point. The options are as endless as your creativity. This is a golden opportunity for you to try some of these lesser known ingredients. You’ll be pleased and surprised at the ease at which you may usher a new favorite into your repertoire.
A Thanksgiving for Trial and Error
I’m not sure where the saying, ”As easy as pie” came from, probably from a grandmother who had been making pies for 50 years. It’s not actually the most accurate statement. A more honest saying would be, “Pie isn’t easy at all. It’s only a success if you have taken the necessary steps and perfected the art of the flaky crust”. That’s a less than inspiring saying and quite the mouthful. That said, this is the year to practice, to experiment, to pivot, to go out of your comfort zone. Your audience will probably be small, quite accepting of your creations, and possibly rather forgiving if you fall short of success.
It seems that everyone has stories to tell about their Thanksgiving traditions. The preparation for this meal usually involves several days. Turkeys are bought days ahead. They fill our refrigerators as they thaw. The aromas begin to fill our homes: cranberry sauce cooking on the stove, pies baking in the oven. These are the reminiscent smells that welcome family as they gather.
The actual day of Thanksgiving arises early as the final rubs and fillings are applied to the big bird before we slide it into the oven to roast. If you are like most cooks, you breathe a sigh of relief once this step is done. The day is still early, and the house is quiet. It is the perfect time to sit for a minute and sip some coffee.
Next up, think about the side dishes, the hors d’oeuvres, and last but certainly not least, the desserts. Vegetables need scrubbing, potatoes need peeling, green beans need trimming. Time to start mixing up the dinner rolls. We must always include favorite foods. Is your pie of choice pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Do you eat marshmallows on your sweet potatoes?
Our culinary traditions bring us together as friends and families, but also together as a country. This is the time we remember to give thanks. We give thanks for loved ones, food, warm houses, freedom, friendships. We also think about and give in record amounts to those who do not have loved ones, who are going hungry this November, and who lack a warm house to call their own. This is a time for thankfulness, and out of this full heart comes generosity.
The tradition of a harvest festival grew up with our country, starting in the early 1600s. This celebration took many forms in fits and starts before it finally settled in to what it is today. George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving on September 25, 1789. This was sporadically observed for a number of years following his declaration.
The idea of a designated Thanksgiving Day, however, was championed by a most unlikely suspect. Sarah Josepha Hale, a poor young widow who then rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of its time, Godey’s Lady Book, talked about this idea for many years, presenting it to multiple presidents. Finally Abraham Lincoln listened and declared in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 that the last Thursday of November should be set aside. It wasn’t until 1941, thanks to President Roosevelt, that Congress officially established that day as a national holiday.
Sage, a common Thanksgiving herb.
Apples with manchego and pancetta on rosemary sprigs.
In our home, Thanksgiving tends to be tradition with a twist. While the basic food items such as turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, etc, are present at the Thanksgiving table, their form and what dish they show up in is constantly changing. One year cranberries are in the stuffing, the next year they appear in the beverage, the next, in a dessert. Likewise with apples or pecans.
Trio of cranberry sauces: cranberry fig, cranberry jalapeño, and cranberry pear.
Trio of cranberry sauces: cranberry fig, cranberry jalapeño, and cranberry pear.
Our turkey may appear green thanks to the herb paste stuffed under the skin or have copper sheen due to being glazed with sweet mix of pomegranate molasses and orange juice. Sometimes we roast it upside down, other times on high heat. Some years we stuff it with apples, onions, lemon, garlic, and sage leaves, other times with cornbread sausage stuffing. Every year is an opportunity to try new versions of the trusty old ingredients.
This year the cranberries are going to have some added kick, sauteed with shallots and jalapeno peppers. A second sweet variation will include Bosc pears, quince paste, and ginger root. A butternut squash will be pan-roasted with sage leaves, tossed with fresh mozzarella cheese, and then drizzled all over with pistachio pesto. Our stuffing will be gluten-free by using a base of wild rice.
With so much change, does anything stay the same? Yes, the tender, fresh from the oven dinner rolls. These never change. They must show up every year. They are so pristinely baked that a goodly number of them never make it to the dinner table.
Find your own recipe for melding tradition with change. We are a blessed people, so this Thanksgiving, both give and give thanks.
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