Thanksgiving is a holiday of traditions and memories. In my family, Thanksgiving meant the annual pilgrimage to my grandparent’s coastal retreat on Morro Bay where the Karner clan gathered for our feast. Aunts, uncles, cousins and friends were all regulars at this celebration, as were the traditional dishes made from family recipes that graced the huge table in my grandparent’s dining room.
It was a long drive from my hometown in the Mojave Desert to their home in Los Osos– my sister, brother, and me crammed together on the backseat of our family Suburban without the benefit of electronic distractions my kids enjoy today.
Arriving late at night, my parents would carry our sleepy bodies from the car into my grandmother’s warm kitchen where we were greeted by the familiar aroma of fresh-baked persimmon cookies and mincemeat tarts. We would wake just long enough to savor a few of her homemade treats with a glass of ice-cold milk before falling into bed completely content.
To this day, one of my favorite childhood memories of Thanksgiving is the smell of grandma’s persimmon cookies baking in the oven. Her recipe, which calls for the gelatinous flesh of the ripe fruit mixed with spice, walnuts, and raisins, was quintessential comfort food.
The recipe was passed down to my mother, who made it part of our holiday tradition long after grandma had passed. To this day, the smell of grandma’s persimmon cookies baking in the oven instantly transports me back to her kitchen on those late Thanksgiving eves.
Not all persimmons are created equal. The two varieties of this fruit, Fuyu and Hachiya, can be found at local farmers markets and in some specialty grocers this time of year. The Fuyu is firm when ripe and may be eaten like an apple. The Hachiya is edible only when the skin is translucent and the flesh extremely soft.
Case in point: several years ago, while hiking with my young daughter on a favorite local trail, I came upon a wild persimmon tree. It was a lone remnant of some early Novato homestead—the last indication that a dwelling once existed on this property. Its branches were heavy with orange globes swinging like Chinese lanterns in the November breeze. Standing on my tip-toes, I could just reach a few of the low-hanging fruit.
I plucked one from its limb–glossy and firm with a flat green stem perched on top like a beret. “What’s that?”, my daughter asked curiously. “It’s a persimmon”, I replied, turning the smooth-skinned fruit over in my hand. It was shaped like a big acorn. “What’s it taste like?”, she prodded, staring up at me quizzically. My memory drifted back to my grandma’s warm kitchen and cookies.
I could not recall the taste of a raw persimmon. “Let’s find out”, I replied, taking a big bite of the firm flesh and passing the fruit down to her waiting hands.
As soon as I began to chew an awful sensation overwhelmed me. The inside of my mouth began to pucker, and my throat began to feel as if it were swelling closed. Spitting out the offending bite, I instinctively snatched the persimmon from my daughter’s grasp as if it were the poisoned apple presented to Snow White. It took several swigs of water from my bottle before the sensation thankfully began to subside.
I later learned this persimmon was the Hachiya. Similar in shape to a large acorn, this variety is only palatable when eaten in its fully ripened state–so ripe, in fact, that the orange skin is streaked with black and turns opaque enough to see the delicate, squishy flesh encased within. A fruit displaying these qualities will have reached the height of its sugar content. It is best eaten by slicing off the top and scooping out the gooey insides with a spoon. The ripe flesh of this variety is the ingredient that made my grandma’s persimmon cookies so moist and delicious.
This same fruit when not fully ripened, however, has a high concentration of tannin that gives the flesh an astringent taste. If eaten while it’s still hard, as I did, you will suffer the consequence. It’s a mistake you make only once.
The second variety of persimmon, Fuyu, is a smaller, squat fruit shaped like an old-fashioned pin cushion. Fuyu are crunchy and firm when ripe, with a mild, pleasant flavor. This variety is less sweet than the Hachiya, and may be eaten, skin and all, like an apple. They are delicious raw, or sliced in a winter greens salad mixed with pomegranate seeds, candied pecans, and a light champagne vinaigrette. Some have a smallish seed in the center which should not be eaten.
Both varieties are burnt orange when ripe, low in calories, rich in fiber, and high in vitamins C, A, Beta Carotene, and Lycopene, making them nutritious as well as tasty. This Thanksgiving, bake up a batch of my grandma’s persimmon cookies, and fall in love with this unique autumn fruit.
GRANDMA’S PERSIMMON COOKIES
1/2 C Crisco Shortening
1/2 C Sugar
1/2 C Brown Sugar, packed
2 C All-purpose flour
1 C very ripe Hachiya persimmon pulp
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp each Cloves & Nutmeg
1 Tbl Cinnamon
1 C Walnuts, chopped
1 C Raisins
In a large mixing bowl, cream the shortening and both sugars together. In a separate bowl, mix the persimmon pulp and egg until combined and add to above. In another bowl, mix all dry ingredients, including walnuts and raisins, and add to mix, stirring to form a dough. Drop dough by rounded teaspoons on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes.