A very ripe kaki (persimmon) feels a bit like a little balloon filled with water. Cup one in your hands – they are often disconcertingly heavy – and then move it from side to side: you can almost feel the soft pulp sloshing inside the tawny skin, which has the sort of translucent glow that in many fruits would suggest the wrong side of ripe. The dry, crumpled calyx will tug away easily and then it takes almost nothing to break the skin. A knife would be excessive. A spoon is best. It isn’t quite the explosion of a water balloon, but almost: open the fruit over a plate so the flood of sweet, pulpy, almost jelly like flesh is contained.
Until I came to Italy, I had only ever eaten Sharon persimmons, called Sharon fruit in the UK, a variety developed in the Sharon valley in Israel to be less astringent when hard, meaning they can be eaten with pleasure and crunch like an apple. As a child I quite liked Sharon fruit, it was a fun fruit, as opposed to a boring fruit, both exotic, with its shiny, yellow-orange skin, and familiar to a 12-year-old who watched with dedication the soap opera Eastenders and England’s most famous landlord’s daughter, Sharon Watts. It was the equivalent, maybe, of a fruit today being developed in the Kim valley.
Various less astringent varieties are cultivated in Italy, usually called kaki vaniglia, in Rome at least. Just to confuse things they are also called loti vaniglia, kaki mela and cachi fuya. Simply asking for kaki duri (hard) generally works. The hard vaniglia variety will eventually ripen too, the skin darkening from yellow to tawny red, the pulp softening into plummyness. However after extremely scientific research on my windowsill and in a paper bag, I can confirm they never quite reach the ripeness, nor the deep flavor, of varieties whose astringent tannins have been conquered by extraordinary sweetness. Hard varieties, I think, are best just so, out of hand, or sliced for a salad, where lemon and salt bring out best in them.
It is the kaki that begin life as a hard, mouth-furring ball, and then ripen into little balloons that really interest me at this time of year. The sort that make plenty of people shudder at the mere wobbly thought of them, The wild ancestors of Kaki grew in China and Japan, where full-fruiting trees have flourished, and had a deep symbolic significance, for over two thousand years. In her wonderful Fruit Book, Jane Grigson notes that in Japan the poet Issa uses Kaki to symbolize maternal self-sacrifice – Wild persimmons, the mother eating, the bitter part. I have seen pictures of trees in Japan, leafless, hung with deep red fruit that looks like glowing baubles on an avant garde Christmas tree. I have never been to Japan, but I have been to Abruzzo in November, a particularly damp and grey one to research a piece on olive oil. We had to stop the car several time to look at the strange Autumn beauty through the mist, trees with skeleton branches arching under the weight of the fruit, the ground below a ripe carnage. The owner of one tree almost begged us to take some off her hands, which we did, the fruits supple and extremely soft, spilling all over our greed in the car. Back home I thought about jam, and until I realized that ripe kaki are in fact already jam, the pulp so sticky and sweet that you need only nick a corner and a jam tumbles onto your toast. Or into your cake batter.
As you may remember, I only really make one cake, of infinite variations. It is Ruth’s olive oil and yogurt pot cake – the one in which you use a pot of yogurt, and then the pot to measure the rest of the ingredients – which has now evolved into a ricotta and olive oil cake you can add anything to, the recipe of which is in my book. It will probably be in my next book too. I make a version of this cake most weeks, enjoying the fact I can fling it all together in about two minutes. This week, after dislodging the mixing bowl from the infernal pile rammed under the butcher block and thinking bollocks, I noticed a kaki and thought aha. So ripe was the fruit, pureeing it would have been superfluous, I simply squeezed and it slipped, like a jellyfish, into the bowl. I then fished out bits of skin, which wasn’t really necessary. The batter streaked with tawny ripples looked gorgeous. In the oven it went.
I have made the cake again since, weighing the kaki, which was just short of 300g. The weight and consistency of the ripe fruit means the cake doesn’t rise as it normally does, in fact when I first pulled the first one from the oven my heart sank like cake before me. It was heavy. The next morning I cut a slice, the crust deep golden brown, the crumb ruddy-yellow with tawny flecks. It was dense, damp and plainly delicious. This cake reminds me a little of Claudia Roden’s wonderfully moist whole orange cake in that it is better after a nights rest and keeps a good few days, that it happily moonlights as a pudding if given enough cold cream. I think this cake might be our Christmas dessert. That, or simply a ripe kaki, with cream poured in the top, and nothing else.
Persimmon (kaki), olive oil, lemon and ricotta ring cake
There are a rather confusing number of varieties of kaki/persimmon grown all over the world. As you can imagine, the varieties that need to be matured until very soft are ripened in various ways, some more preferable than others, and transport can be difficult. It might be worth doing a bit of research. I have reduced the sugar slightly from my book recipe as the kaki provides plenty.
- 250 g plain flour
- a bag of Italian leivito or two teaspoons of baking powder
- 150 g sugar
- 250 g ricotta or whole milk yogurt
- 200 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 3 eggs
- the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
- a very ripe, very soft (Hachiya) kaki/ persimmon, approx 300 g.
Pre-heat the oven to 180°
In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients – flour, baking power and sugar. Add the ricotta/yogurt, olive oil and eggs one by one and mix vigorously until you have a smooth batter. Grate the lemon zest directly over the mixture and then scoop the persimmon flesh from the skin and mix again.
Pour the mixture into an oiled and floured ring tin and bake on a rack in the middle of the oven for 40 – 50 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a skewer or piece of spaghetti comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the tin and then invert onto a plate.