Persimmon Treats for the Holiday Cookie Platter

persimmon chews

The day the sale of our farm closed, I picked nearly all the remaining fruit in the orchard, but I had to leave the persimmons. They were the biggest crop I’ve ever had, on a tree at least fifteen years old but still barely taller than I. What bothered me most was that, thanks to the unusually long, hot summer, the persimmons were sure to ripen completely for the first time—to turn bright orange and lusciously sweet, as persimmons regularly do in California.

So I was especially grateful when a fellow Master Food Preserver offered me a big box of squat, nonastringent Fuyu persimmons. She had gotten them from a relative who didn’t know what to do with them. They had been left on the tree through weather in the low twenties, and so in places they were as soft as a ripe Hachiya (the acorn-shaped variety that is astringent until fully ripe) while in other places they were quite firm. But still they tasted very, very good. And they had arrived just in time for me to make a few into toothsome holiday treats.

I’ve based the recipe that follows on one apparently created for the little American persimmon—a native Eastern fruit that I’ve never yet had the opportunity of tasting—and for another American native, the black walnut. This nut is worth a try if you have a black walnut tree in the neighborhood and don’t mind the husking and shelling. I substituted fat, sweet English walnut meats from a local friend’s old tree.

The original version of this recipe called for dark brown sugar, and I sometimes prefer it for its richer color and taste. But light brown sugar lets you taste more of the persimmon’s own delicate flavor.

To extract persimmon flesh, scrape or spoon it from the skin, discarding any seeds. If you use Hachiyas or fruits of another astringent variety, be sure they are fully soft. Persimmons such as Fuyu can be used when quite firm. Firm flesh will need chopping.

Persimmon Chews

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons walnut meats
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
1 cup persimmon pulp
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark, as you prefer), packed
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter

 Chop 1 cup of the walnuts, and put them into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Grind the remaining walnuts with the confectioner’s sugar in a spice grinder or blender. Set this mixture aside.

Add to the saucepan the persimmon pulp, sugar, egg yolks, and butter. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring often at first and then constantly as the mixture thickens. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a ball that pulls away from the side and bottom of the pan, or to 230 degrees F. This will take about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool for about an hour. Then form it with your hands into 1-inch balls, and roll each ball in the sugar-walnut mixture.

When the balls are completely cool, store them in an airtight container.

 Makes about 2 dozen chews

Quince Jelly Candy

Here’s another, rather extravagant way to use the last of the season’s quinces. I devised this recipe because I wanted something similar to quince paste but prettier and more delicate. Quince jelly candy makes a lovely addition to a holiday sweetmeat platter.

If you don’t like cardamon, leave it out; you might use a cinnamon stick instead. If you really like cardamom, use six pods instead of four.

2 1/2 pounds quinces, with cores and skins, sliced fine
4 cardamon pods
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon strained lemon juice
Extra-fine sugar, for coating the jelly

Combine the quinces, cardamom, and water in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Simmer the quinces, covered, until the fruit and juice turn pink, or about 1 hour and 40 minutes.  Stir occasionally during the cooking, and take care to keep the heat low enough to avoid scorching. Add a little more water if necessary.

Strain the juice through a coarsely woven jelly bag. You should get about 1 cup juice.

Combine the quince juice with the sugar and lemon juice in a 10-inch skillet. Heat the mixture slowly, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, and then bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. When the syrup “sheets,” or when a drop hangs stubbornly from a raised metal spoon, quickly empty the pan into a 5-by-7-inch mold (I use a small Pyrex casserole dish), leaving any foam behind on the side of the pan. Reaching the gel point should take no more than a few minutes; it may happen, in fact, before the syrup even comes to a full boil. (If you’re not sure that the syrup is jelling; remove the pan from the heat briefly before emptying it into the mold. If the syrup is jelling, the cooling surface will wrinkle slightly when you tip the pan.)

Let the jelly cool and dry in the mold until the jelly is fully set; you’ll know it is if the lower edge fails to swell when you tip the mold. I let my jelly sit in the mold at cool room temperature for about two days. In a warm, dry place, you might allow for less drying time. To speed the process, put the mold into a food dehydrator or oven at a temperature of about 150 degrees F.

Sprinkle a board or plate with about 1 tablespoon of extra-fine sugar. With a table knife or small spatula, loosen the edges of the jelly from the dish. With your fingers, carefully lift the sheet of jelly from the mold and lay the jelly on the sugared plate or board. Turn the jelly over to coat the other side with sugar. Slice the jelly into 1-inch squares, sprinkle them with more extra-fine sugar, and store them in an airtight tin lined with waxed paper.

Makes about 1 cup jelly candies

To Candy Angelica

Very old preserving books always include candied angelica, and I wanted to continue this tradition in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. I ended up leaving out this herb, though, because I’d never managed to grow it. In fact, I didn’t even know what it tasted like. But last year, luckily, I found a start at Nichols (a local seed company, in Albany, Oregon, and one of my favorites) and the plant has happily sprung back despite the extreme cold of December. So over the past week, for the first time, I have candied angelica.

Angelica is a member of the genus Umbelliferae, which provides an awesome assortment of flavors for the kitchen (other members include parsley, carrot, parsnip, fennel, anise, coriander, celery, dill, cumin, lovage, and caraway). Like many of its cousins, angelica is biennial; the seeds sprout soon after they’re dropped in the summer, and then the little plant overwinters before sending up tall seed stalks the following summer. (The reasons I and other gardeners have had trouble growing angelica from seed, apparently, are that the seeds need light to germinate and that they lose their viability quickly.) Angelica archangelica, the European variety traditionally used in cooking, can wave its umbels as high as six feet in the air. Tasting the bitter leaves might make you avoid this plant as potentially poisonous, and in fact the herb has been used more as medicine than as food. The leaves, seeds, stems, and roots of angelica species have all served as remedies for various complaints, especially digestive and bronchial problems. In the kitchen, the leaves have been used for tea, the roots and seeds have flavored wine and liqueurs, the ground dried root has been added to baked goods, and the fresh leaves have flavored salads, soups, stews, custards, ice cream, and other desserts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers angelica safe for use as food.

Many old recipes specify that angelica should be cut in April for candying. Early May should be fine, too, provided the stems are still green, not purplish (although you shouldn’t wait until the plant blooms, which according to European tradition happens on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel). Use only thick stems, and cut away the leaves and leaf stems.

I developed my candying method from several old, slow recipes, although quicker methods might work as well. Here’s what I did:

Candied Angelica

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
½ pound thick green angelica stems, cut into 3- to 8-inch lengths
Extra-fine sugar, for dusting

Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring. Remove the pan from the heat.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the angelica stems. Over medium-high heat, cook the stems for 4 to 6 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Their sharp, bitter aroma will fill the air. Drain the stems, rinse them in cold water, and drain them again. Peel off the thin skin. A vegetable peeler may help, but most of the skin should rub off easily with your fingers. Put the stems into a bowl, pour the syrup over them, and weight them with a small plate.

The next day, drain off the syrup into a saucepan. Boil it until it has thickened a bit (to about 225 degrees F), and pour it over the angelica. Repeat this process the next day, and again the day after. At this point the stems should appear partially translucent.

drying angelica
 

On the following day, pour off the syrup again, and boil it to the thread stage (230 degrees F). Add the angelica stems, and bring the syrup back to the thread stage. Drain the stems in a colander, and then place them on a rack or screen in a warm place until they are dry to the touch (a food dryer or a convection oven set on very low heat will speed the drying).Dust the dried stems with sugar, and store them in an airtight container.

candied angelica

 

Before you store your angelica, of course, you’ll want to taste it and consider how to use it. The flavor reminds me of horehound, but others compare it to licorice. My husband says it’s not like either; he detects roses and grass. Angelica’s bitterness should still be apparent in the candied stems, but it should be balanced by the sweetness of the sugar.

Cookbooks with recipes for candied angelica usually mention its use in or on cakes. But what sorts of cakes? I checked at least a dozen cookbooks that I thought might answer this question, but none did. I think I’ll try my candied angelica in gingerbread, biscotti, or fruit cake. I’ll also eat it on its own now and then, to experience its strange, strong flavor again.

Note: Several species of angelica are native to North America. They can presumably be used in the same ways as Angelica archangelica, but before you gather any wild angelica make sure you can tell it from poisonous water hemlock, Cicuta maculata.

Candied Fennel Cores

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Four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures put an end to the remains of my vegetable garden. As in many years past, I was late in digging carrots and setting up plastic tents over the greens (which might actually have survived if I’d included an electric heater, set on high). After three days of bitter cold I dug up the carrot bed, in frozen chunks six inches deep, and set the blocks in the garage to thaw. I also dug up two enormous bulbs of Florence fennel, the kind sold in stores as anise (which it isn’t) or finocchio (Italian for “fennel”). The bulbs were frozen through.

I set the fennel in a big bowl on the kitchen counter for a day and a half, until the bulbs had thawed enough to handle. Then I cut away the outer layers, which had browned a bit. Most of the rest became, with the addition of onion, potato, chicken stock, and sour cream, a big pot of pureed fennel soup. Delicious! It was the best thing I’d ever made with fennel—until two days later.

I had saved the fennel cores. These were hard, solid, and white, like cabbage cores. The cores of Florence fennel are included in many Italian recipes, although they take longer to soften than the outer layers; I could certainly have cooked them in the soup. But I had been reading Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a wonderfully entertaining yet scholarly history of candy. Tim had made me think how medieval my Joy of Jams was. All those fruit pastes and syrups started with recipes the Arabs developed, or borrowed from the Persians. These treats became popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. My book even includes some recipes for crystallized fruits, which are just preserves with the syrup drained off. To a large extent, The Joy of Jams is about medieval confectionery.

But I’d left out candied vegetables. “All kinds of roots and stalks were being candied in England by the sixteenth century,” according to Tim. They included parsley roots, angelica stalks, lettuce stalks, and stranger foods like sea holly, borage, and bugloss. They also included fennel roots.

My fennel had tough, rough, dirty roots, and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. But the cores seemed to hold some promise. So I made a small batch of . . .

Candied Fennel Cores

5 ounces Florence fennel cores, cut into 3/8-inch cubes
1 cup water (plus more for cooking the fennel)
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar

Put the fennel cubes into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them.

Combine the 1 cup water, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the cream of tartar in a saucepan, and heat the mixture gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a boil, and continue boiling it until it is reduced by about one-third. Add the fennel, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Return the pan to the stove. Simmer the fennel in the syrup for about 25 minutes, until the cubes are partially translucent and the syrup reaches thread stage (230 degrees F.).

Remove the pan from the heat. Let the fennel cubes rest in the syrup at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the fennel cubes. Set them to dry in a warm place until they are no longer sticky. I used a food dehydrator, but you could instead use a very low oven or even a woodstove.

The finished candies ranged in color from pale gold to amber. They were firm but not tough and had a mild but appealing fennel flavor. If you wanted to intensify the flavor, you could add a few fennel seeds to the syrup.

I thought about including the candied fennel cubes on a Christmas dessert platter, alongside my candied Asian pears, or in a Christmas pudding, but I didn’t hide them away fast enough. They got eaten almost immediately. I must admit that I got my share.