December. The final month of the year. Month of Sagittarians and Capricorns. Month of the Turquoise gemstone and the Narcissus flower. Month of Advent and St Nicholas and Christmas. Growing up in the summer hemisphere, it was the month of endless sunshine; of school holidays and swimming pools; of beaches and braais. It is the month in which I celebrate new beginnings – the birth of both my beloved nephews, and the anniversary of the day Nick and legally I started our life together in a government office in Port Elizabeth. But living in the northern hemisphere has given me an entirely opposite perspective on December as well: it is also the month of death. The dying of the year and with it all your unfulfilled expectations of the past 12 months. The ostensible death of the trees as they lose their leaves and stand in seemingly lifeless hibernation; the death of the tomato plants; the death of my flowering annuals. The death of my dear friend Christelle, so close to Christmas, eight years ago. And now this year, the death of Nelson Mandela, a colossus of human spirit, wisdom, dignity and humanity.
It is easy to mourn in December – the very earth seems to be weeping with you. The dying of the year makes us dwell on the inevitability of our own death and makes us question which of the lofty aims we set at the start of the year have come to fruition, and which have withered just as the year has withered. I have inherited my dad’s melancholy streak and I find that having the year end in winter, as it does in London, brings this streak easily to the surface. But when I am feeling low, I always think of the indigenous fynbos in South Africa’s Western Cape. There is seldom a year that passes without a devastating fire in the region. The long dry summers mean that a stray piece of glass amplifying the sun’s rays or a careless match or cigarette can easily start a conflagration that destroys all in its path. After a fire, the fynbos is always burnt to the ground, killed by the intense heat. At first, this seems like a tragedy. But in fact, fire is a necessary stage in the life cycle of most fynbos plants, and many of their seeds germinate only after the intense heat of a fire. Most proteas will actually retain their seeds on the bush for at least one year (a process called serotiny), waiting patiently for the next fire.
The story of the fynbos is a fitting natural parable to remind us that there can be no rebirth without death; that regeneration and renewal is only possible once the old has been completely swept away. Every new beginning must be preceded by and end, and so the death of the year in December is necessary to make way for the birth of a new year with all the promise that it holds. This transformation between the old and the new is not always easy or fun, but it is as inevitable as it is necessary. I was sent a box of Spanish persimmons recently and I thought that a recipe using them would be fitting at this time when the seasons, the year and the world seems to be in a state of transformation. Their steady progression from tannic bitterness to appealing sweetness is seen as mirroring the progression that we all make as we age and many Oriental cultures persimmons symbolise transformation.
Persimmons originated in Asia and come in two varieties – the sweeter, squat fuyu type which can be eaten when still quite firm; and the more astringent hachiya – instantly distinguishable from the fuyu by its slightly elongated heart shape (which mine were). They ripen quite happily after being picked and strategies for ripening include exposure to light for several days, or wrapping the fruit in paper (probably because this increases the ethylene concentration of the surrounding air). But rather than something like a peach that you want to ripen until it is just softening, you want your persimmons to reach the extreme end of ripeness, just this side of going mouldy! The process of extreme ripening, if you will, is also referred to as bletting and can also be used for other super-astringent fruits like medlars, sea buckthorn and quinces. There is no decay involved, just ripeness to the point where the flesh is fully soft and almost jelly-like, at which stage the skin might be starting to split. At this stage, picking up the fruit feels a little like picking up a balloon filled with jam – and when you scoop the flesh out with a teaspoon, it does indeed resemble apricot jam in colour and consistency.
Previously I had made a persimmon and cranberry crisp with my not-quite-ripe-enough persimmons so this time I was determined to leave them till they acquired the proper jelly-like consistency. Once they did, it was beginning to feel a little Christmassy and I felt a suitably seasonal recipe was called for . Meeta’s persimmon spice cake had caught my eye and the recipe is almost entirely hers, other than the addition of ground ginger and sultanas. The result is a beautifully simple, dense, moist slab of cake – rather like gingerbread studded with nuts and sultanas – packed with Christmassy flavours minus that annoying candied citrus peel You could add a cream cheese frosting if you wished, but I think it’s perfect with just a sprinkle of icing sugar, and a glass of dessert wine.
More perfect persimmon recipes from bloggers include:
- David Lebovitz’s persimmon margaritas
- Black bean salad with persimmons and avocado from Kalyn’s Kitchen
- Ms Marmitelover’s roasted persimmons with coconut tapioca pudding
DISCLOSURE: These persimmons were sent to me as free samples by Foods from Spain. No other remuneration was received for this post and all opinions are my own.
- 6 ripe and soft persimmons - peeled and puréed (if you leave your persimmons to get very soft like I did, you can simply scoop the flesh out of the skin with a spoon - no need to purée)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 115 grams butter
- 200g brown sugar
- 350g all-purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- 60g walnuts, coarsely chopped
- 60g golden sultanas
- Preheat oven at 180C.
- Add the baking soda to the persimmon purée and stir well to mix. The mixture will thicken and become jelly-like - this is normal.
- In a mixing bowl whisk the butter and sugar with and electric mixer until creamy and fluffy. Stir in the persimmon and egg, beating until well combined. Using a rubber spatula, stir the dry ingredients into the persimmon mixture and blend till all ingredients are moist. Stir in the nuts and sultanas.
- Spoon the batter into a greased cake tin (I used a square but round is also fine) and bake for 40-50 minutes or until the knife comes out clean.
- Remove from the oven and tip onto a cake rack covered in paper towels - allow to cool.
- Garnish with sifted icing sugar just before serving - the moist cake absorbs the sugar so don't do this hours before you serve!
- The cake keeps well wrapped in foil or in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days - it also freezes well in an airtight container.