They said it couldn't be done. Or maybe they said it shouldn't be done. Perhaps they said they had never done it. Whatever they said and whoever they are, I did it.
Several weeks ago, I hung several peeled hachiya persimmons in our basement to dry. Through a process of hang-drying, combined with occasional gentle massaging, they evolved from firm, bright orange globes into squishy, wizened, burnt-siena sacs with a fine, white powder on the exterior. They became hoshigaki, the Japanese traditional dried persimmons.
There was uncertainty along the way, to be sure. Traditional methods have the persimmons hanging outside, with ample airflow and some exposure to sun. My basement is dark, with one sheltered window on the far end. It does, however, have decent airflow, as there's a grate that fronts out onto the sidewalk, and a moderately consistent humidity and temperature range.
At first, the slippery surfaces of the persimmons became tacky, then leathery. Brown streaks began to appear on the flesh. I gently pinched them between my fingers until I felt the resistance begin to give Then, every few days, I would give them delicate massages.
Somehow I managed to avoid the scourge of mold, ants, rodents or my dog ravaging my precious quarry. Not that the success rate was absolute; I hung a second batch a couple weeks after my first, and some of these had begun to ripen by the time I got them strung up. Among those, a few erupted during their massages. They still did not mold, but are aesthetically not as pleasing as the rest. Oh well, more for me.
I sampled one of my finished fruits. They had the dense, chewy texture and subtle sweetness I remember from ones procured from local farms, plus just a hint of tannic bitterness lingering on the back of the tongue. It took an ounce of self-restraint to keep from eating them all myself.
But no, from the beginning the idea was for these to be gifts. I put them in cellophane bags, folded and tied at the top, to keep them from overdrying and becoming tough. And, of course, it makes them cute besides, especially with my fancy Punk Domestics tags (otherwise known as Moo cards). Best of all? Commercial hoshigaki retail at more than $2 per ounce. I paid $2.50 per pound for my fresh fruit.
Since my first exposure to them a few years ago, I have been obsessed with hoshigaki, the Japanese slow-dried persimmons. (You may even recall that I used them in a salad a while back.) I like dried fruit in general, but these are within a category all their own. Unlike the tart chewiness of dried apricots or prunes, hoshigaki are dense, meaty and rather subtly sweet.
They are also fantastically expensive.
As a person who's got more time than money on his hands of late, I spend more time than usual considering how I can take matters into my own hands, start with inexpensive raw materials and create something that would otherwise cost me more than I care to spend. Since persimmons are currently trending under three bucks a pound, I simply had to try my hand at making hoshigaki, which retail around a dollar apiece.
There's somewhat limited information out on the interwebs about making hoshigaki. Quite a lot of conversation, mind you, but little in the way of specific instruction. In part, I imagine this is because so few people are doing it in anglophone countries. But there's enough for me to intuit the major steps, and so certainly enough for me to take a stab at it. The worst that could happen is that I'm out a couple bucks' worth of fresh persimmons.
This much is abundantly clear: You start with hachiya persimmons, the elongated type that are normally left to ripen until the insides are as soft as jelly. However, you start this process with firm hachiyas. These are not edible in this state; the fruit is intensely tannic. Don't trust me? Fine, go ahead and take a taste. I'll wait.
Yeah, see what I mean? See how your mouth feels like it's been stuffed with wool and you get that bitter, almost metallic taste? Delicious, huh?
The good news is that aging the persimmons breaks down the tannins and mellows the fruit. But it will require patience.
Anyway, select fruit that has at least some of the stem intact, so you have something to tie onto. Trim away the sepals at the top, and peel the fruit completely. I find the best way is to peel a ring around the top, then peel down in broad strokes along the sides.
Be careful: The fruit's flesh is alternately slippery and sticky, and you're likely to jam the peeler into one or more digits during the process. Once the fruit is peeled, select a spot with good ventilation and protection from the elements. I've seen recommendations that it be a spot that gets some sun, as well. (I put mine in our basement ... hope the sun isn't a necessary factor.) Tie kitchen twine around the stems of the fruit and hang them, making sure they don't touch each other.
And wait. After several days, the fruit should take on a leathery exterior. Once that happens, every few days, gently massage the fruit to break down the cell walls within. Don't go all shiatsu on it; just a gentle squeeze or three to distribute the sugars and moisture will do. After several weeks, the fruit should be shriveled, dark and coated with a fine powdering of white sugar.
I just started this lucky batch of 13 persimmons the other day. I'll report back with progress. Hopefully they won't get eaten by ants/mice/my dog in the meantime.
Preface: I know perfectly well that canning fruit jam will not produce botulism. It's called humor.
Cooking is much more than just producing food for sustenance. It
is at once intimate and objective, creative and logistical. But above all else, it is personal. Even the most basic home-cooked dish is in some way an expression of you as a person, your technical expertise, your sense of adventure, your cultural heritage.
This is why food and its preparation are best shared. Whether you are giving someone a recipe or just soliciting for an extra hand in the kitchen, your kitchen becomes your own personal town hall.
And so when my friend Vanessa expressed interested in doing some jamming and canning with me, I was more than thrilled to oblige. The apricots are finally coming into season, and I've been jonesing for more since I opened my last jar of last year's batch during the winter.
Vanessa gamely showed up with a 26-lb. flat of apricots, some organic lemons and a desire to jam. I had jars at the ready. We set to work right away.
Handling apricots, whether for jam or eating out of hand, is an intensely sensual experience. Sitting softly in the palm of your hand, they seem to have an intrinsic warmth. The flesh yields with the gentlest tug from your thumbs at the seam where the fuzzy cheeks meet; honeyed droplets form along the walls of the exposed interior. The stone surrenders itself without resistance. The fruit, once curled into itself, is now splayed out, naked, yours for the taking.
Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right. Jam.
As we ravaged our apricots, we reserved the pits in a separate bowl, for they were our secret ingredient. You see, inside the practically impenetrable pits of stone fruits are tender little seeds called noyaux that, when steeped in liquid, impart a haunting almond-like aroma. Why? Because they are packed with cyanide! In very small quantities, though, they are merely delicious and not deadly.
So, as we prepared to start the first batch, we cracked open our pits and made little sachets with a few other flavor-enhancing spices: Black pepper, cardamom and clove.
These went into two pots full of fruit, sugar and lemons.
Knowing we would have to process the fruit in two batches of two pots each, I set the first batch on a high flame to get things started, while Vanessa continued breaking down the remaining fruit. Moments later something caught the corner of my eye, at which point my head turned to see brown bubbles rising from one side of one of the pots. The sugar was burning! I quickly gave the pot a stir, hoping I hadn't ruined the whole thing. As liquid from the macerated fruit mixed with the brown sugar, the room filled with the rich, nutty smell of caramel. No black bits appeared. So, we ended up making one whole pot of caramel apricot jam. Totally on purpose.
I decided to use lemons this time in lieu of commercial pectin. In the past, I've found that apricots tend to break down a fair amount on their own, and naturally create a thickened jam; the pectin from the lemon rind would just help move that along.
As the jam came to temperature, I walked Vanessa through the workflow of canning: Sterilize the jars and lids, fill the jars, add the lids and rings, place in the waterbath for ten minutes, then remove to cool. I explained the importance of each step: If the jars are not sterilized, you will get botulism. If you touch the inside of the sterilized jars, thereby rendering them
no longer sterile, you will get botulism. If the lids do not form a good seal, you will get botulism. I think she got the point.
We ladled the jam into the jars, the afternoon light causing them to glow a bright, golden orange. I called it the color of happiness. It just makes you smile.
Once we pulled our final product out of the water bath, we were tickled by the effervescent pop-pop-pop of lids compressing. It can be hard work, but canning is very gratifying. You feel productive.
In the end we filled 24 cup jars, 24 half-pint jars and more than a dozen pint jars; the pint jars were filled with our second batch. Interestingly, though we didn't vary our methods, the latter half of our jams just didn't set up quite as well. In the end, I decided to hold them back and reprocess them with additional pectin later on.
This is the other reason I like cooking: It's OK to fail, because you learn from your failures. You learn to adapt. And you learn that nothing that's been done can't be undone or redone.
Unless you get botulism.
Apricot jam with noyaux, spices and bourbon
1000 g. (about 7 c.) apricots, coarsely chopped, pits reserved 1000 g. (about 5 c.) sugar One lemon, cut in slices 5-7 black peppercorns 1-2 cardamom pods, cracked 2-3 cloves 1/4 c. bourbon
In a large, heavy, nonreactive pot, mix the fruit and sugar, and let stand to macerate at least 20 minutes.
With a nutcracker, crack open several of the reserved pits and remove the noyaux from within. Don't worry if they get a little beat up. On a square of cheesecloth (approximately 6" square), place the noyaux and spices, and tie up the corners tightly to form a sachet.
Place the macerated fruit over medium heat until all the sugar is dissolved (unless you're on purpose going for caramelized apricot jam, in which case crank it up! Carefully.) Add the lemons and the sachet. Raise the heat to high, stirring frequently to prevent burning.
When the jam reaches 220ºF, turn off the flame, add the bourbon, stir will to combine and let the jam stand for a few minutes. Ladle through a canning funnel into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2" headroom. Give the jars a jiggle to release any bubbles in the jam. Clean away any jam on the lip of the jars with a moistened paper towel, being careful not to touch the interior of the jar. Cover with new, unused lids and add the rings, tightening until finger-tight. Lower into a water bath at a full, rolling boil with at least 1" water above the tops of the jars, and boil for at least five minutes. (If you are more than 1000 feet above sea level, you will need to adjust your boiling times by adding one minute for every 1000 feet in altitude.)
Remove the jars to cooling racks. Smile as the lids go pop-pop-pop. If any do not, keep them in the refrigerator and consume at will, or reprocess and can as above.