I never thought I’d be one of those expats who pines for tastes of home and can be found looking shifty around the security gates at airports, nervously anticipating the moment they are forced to unveil to the bemused staff their suitcase, tightly packed with jars of Marmite and cylinders of Digestive biscuits. Then again, I don’t like Marmite, I haven’t eaten a Digestive biscuit in years, and the usual suspects hardly register on my radar of desire either: baked beans I consider an atrocity, Yorkshire tea is unpleasantly bitter, and Branston pickle is a surefire way to ruin almost any food.Read More
Life has moved on from the days when a kiwi slice on your cheesecake was the height of fructose-based sophistication, when mangoes were only acquired in sorbet form and when pineapples were the ultimate status symbol at parties. While I bemoan the fact that grand buildings no longer come with a dedicated 'pineapple house', I do love the fact that we can choose from a growing variety of exotic and tropical imports at the supermarkets these days. Yet it seems that although we're well-versed in mangoes, kiwi and grapefruit, there are some newer fruits that we shy away from, unsure of what to do with them in the kitchen or daunted by the task of preparing them for consumption (if you're wondering, you just cut a dragon fruit in half and scoop out the flesh. Far easier than all those hot-pink spiky tendrils would have you believe). Ottolenghi has popularised the pomegranate (for which you only need one recipe, and it goes thus: throw the seeds on all foods to make them pretty), while Nigel Slater and garnish-happy chefs around the world have induced a taste for figs, but what about those other weird and wonderful, vibrant-coloured delights we so often shun in favour of the familiar, the safe, the bunch of grapes or the six-pack of kiwi? Here are my top five slightly more unusual fruits: what they are, how to prepare them, and how to use them in both sweet and savoury dishes. If I've inspired you to try something new after this, I'll be very happy.Read More
Few people seem to know what to do with a persimmon. In fact, most people I know have never encountered them before. They’ll either hear me mention one and say ‘what’s that?’, or they’ll glance over at it in the fruit bowl and look confused. I can kind of understand why: persimmons do resemble large, squat orange tomatoes, so seeing them nestled there amongst the bananas, apples and pears might seem a little odd (even though the tomato is, of course, technically a fruit). I explain the unique qualities of this fine fruit, tell them how good it is in a variety of dishes…and then of course they say ‘Oh right’ and promptly forget, assuming this is another of my mad fruit whims to be humoured and then quickly disregarded.Read More
A quick bread is basically a baked good that rises without yeast. Think banana bread, courgette bread, that kind of thing - these usually involve baking powder and/or bicarbonate of soda to make them rise. I was confused because I generally wouldn't think of these things as bread, or at least they're bread in name only because they come in a loaf tin. To me, such goods are really classed as loaf cakes (yeast = bread, therefore no yeast = cake), but if you want to make them sound vaguely healthier by calling them a quick bread, I'm not going to complain!
I absolutely love making loaf cakes, which is what 'quick bread' is in my mind. I'll never forget the first time I performed something akin to alchemy by turning a black tangle of rotting bananas into something moist, fragrant, dense and delicious that could be sliced, liberally buttered and devoured on the spot. I honestly felt like I'd hit a turning point in my life, that from then on things were going to be significantly better now that I could make banana bread.
There really is nothing quite like the aroma of baking banana bread. I used to relish that moment when I realised my bananas were past the point where I wanted to eat them. I would wait patiently with great anticipation, enjoying watching them slide into oblivion, blacken and freckle and shrivel, and then I'd get out the flour, the butter, the spices and the milk and invite all my friends round for banana cake. It became a sort of ritual in my second year at Oxford. Just warm, having emerged from the oven only minutes before, perhaps flavoured with some cardamom, coconut or blueberries...you really can't beat it. I think it's the sweet, sweet taste of frugality, of letting nothing whatsoever go to waste. In these times of austerity (a phrase I hate so much that I can't believe I just wrote it), banana bread is just what you need.
Good for the budget and good for the soul. Good, even, for the waistline. The beauty of making loaf cakes is that you can get away with omitting most of the butter, instead using mashed fruit (fresh or dried - prunes and dates are particularly good) to add moisture and flavour. Loaf cakes are supposed to be dense, hearty and filling - you don't need to cream butter and sugar to lighten them as you would a fluffy Victoria sponge or a fudgy chocolate gateau. I only use 40g of butter in a whole banana loaf, but you'd never guess it from the taste - honestly.
Yet a slice of loaf cake is far, far more satisfying for me than any fancy, fussy, calorie-laden creation. I defy anyone not to prefer a piece of just-baked banana bread over a panna cotta or a tiramisu or a silly tartlet any day. There's something pleasingly rustic about them; they demand to be hacked apart in thick, door-stop slices, slathered in butter and eaten without the necessity for plate or fork.
That, to me, is real food.
A couple of months ago when the markets were drowning in persimmons, I'd googled this interesting fruit and found a few recipes for persimmon bread. I'd read that persimmons can be used in exactly the same way as bananas when baking, and that they even have a similar flavour.
Don't worry - I bet you're wondering what a persimmon is. Hardly anyone I know knows what a persimmon is. Yeah, I know, I should choose my friends more wisely.
In fact, my boyfriend is convinced I've made the whole thing up and that this fruit does not, in fact, exist. So much so that he has now nicknamed this creation "Made-Up Fruit Bread".
A persimmon is sometimes called a kaki or sharon fruit.
There are two types; you're more likely to be familiar with the Fuyu persimmon (see below), which looks like a bright orange tomato. It's small and squat, sometimes perfectly four-leaf-clover shaped, sometimes more round. It has a brownish green stalk and little leaves. The skin is quite hard, even when ripe, but the inside softens and becomes jelly-like. The texture is almost exactly like a tomato: harder skin, soft gelatinous flesh, but the flavour is somewhere between a peach and a mango.
They are a joy to eat, with their mild fruity flavour and their lovely textural contrast between the crunchy skin and jelloid innards. They work really well thinly sliced in salads, perhaps with some sharp cheese like feta or some salty ham. If you've never tried one before, perhaps too scared or confused by their masquerading as orange tomatoes, do take the plunge. Let them ripen until they give easily when pressed, rather like a mango, then slice into wedges and eat.
A hachiya persimmon is much bigger, usually, with much softer, thinner skin. These can be unpleasantly astringent unless perfectly, wobblingly ripe: basically, you have to wait until it feels like a water balloon in your hand before you can think about eating it (which, incidentally, makes for transportation issues). These persimmons are better for baking with, because you can just chuck the whole thing - minus the stalk - in a blender when ripe and purée it to smithereens. It can now be used in the same way as mashed bananas.
I had some hachiya persimmons a while ago that had started to become too jelloid even for my liking. Being the freakishly-organised wannabe home economist that I am, I puréed them and froze the pulp for a later use. I just had to try out persimmon bread.
This is a variation of several recipes I came across while researching persimmon bread; I added a few bits of my own and altered a few things according to my whims. I wanted something healthy enough to be eaten for breakfast (liberally slathered with butter, of course, which is why it had to be healthy to start with at least...), but also decadent enough to eat warm with a cup of tea mid-afternoon. I wanted something moist, fragrant, satisfying; everything a 'quick bread' should be.
In the end I came up with a persimmon bread flavoured with warm spices, vanilla and orange zest, and enriched with crunchy, earthy walnuts and juicy sultanas. You need a bit of texture in a banana bread; walnuts or pecans provide the perfect crunch while really balancing the moreish sweetness of the bananas, so I was sure they'd work with persimmons. And who doesn't love finding a juicy, plump sultana or raisin in the middle of their cake? Only weird people. The loaf is enriched with buttermilk for moisture, persimmon purée for flavour and texture, eggs to hold it all together and a little sugar (brown, for the gorgeous caramel flavour) and butter just so it's still a treat. I used half plain and half wholemeal flour, the latter so it could lend its delicious nuttiness to the whole occasion.
It's ridiculously easy to make, but what's even more ridiculous is how much the smell emanating from your oven as it bakes will have you salivating. There really is nothing on earth more comforting or appetising, I truly believe.
I have to say, I was amazed by the result of this experiment. The bread came out beautifully. It developed a gorgeous dark crust peppered with walnut pieces, while lurking underneath was an incredibly moist, luscious, cakey interior. There was a definite nutty flavour from the wholemeal flour, complemented by the walnuts, but not so much that it didn't still feel like cake. The crumb was incredibly moist, no doubt a result of the buttermilk, fruit purée and small amount of butter I used. Best of all, there's a wonderful warm, autumnal current of spices and orange zest running through the whole thing.
But the ultimate test was performed by my mother, who asked to try a 'tiny' piece, making me cut her the most ridiculous of slivers which is totally impossible to do with a cake this crumbly and moist, and then afterwards asked for another piece. When I grumbled, saying why couldn't she have just asked for a normal-sized piece in the first place, she remarked, "I was worried it was going to taste too worthy, but it doesn't."
So, there you have it. A healthy(ish) quick bread that you'll never believe is, in fact, quite good for you. I can recommend eating a couple of thick slices of this toasted for breakfast and spread with butter. It really is incredible. I actually enjoyed mine with some persimmon jam made for me by a lovely friend of mine who is currently living in St Petersburg, where apparently they have huge gluts of persimmons over the autumn. It has a really interesting, subtle sweet flavour that was delicious on the nutty, earthy bread.
Incidentally, if you can't find persimmons, another joy of this recipe is its versatility - you can use bananas instead of persimmons and basically whatever fruit, nuts and spices you like. I reckon cardamom would be wonderful, as would brazil nuts and dried apricots. Give it a go for a breakfast/teatime treat with a difference.
What are your favourite quick bread/loaf cake recipes? Can anything really beat a good banana bread?
Persimmon and walnut spice bread (makes 1 loaf):
- 2 large hachiya persimmons, puréed in a blender (or 2 large very ripe bananas, mashed)
- 3 tbsp melted butter
- 1 tsp good vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 80g brown sugar
- 100ml buttermilk, yoghurt or milk
- 150g plain flour
- 150g wholemeal flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Pinch of salt
- 1.5 tsp mixed spice
- Finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 60g walnut or pecan pieces, chopped (or other nuts of your choice)
- 60g sultanas or raisins (or other dried fruit of your choice)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a loaf tin.
In a large bowl, beat together the persimmon purée, melted butter, vanilla, eggs, sugar and buttermilk. In another bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and mixed spice. Add this to the wet ingredients and fold together with a large spoon until just combined. Stir in the orange zest, walnuts (reserve a few for decorating) and sultanas.
Pour into the prepared tin and scatter the remaining walnuts over the top. Bake for around 50 minutes until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean (or just about clean - it doesn't matter if you under-bake it a bit, as it'll just be even more moist and delicious).
Allow to cool if you have the willpower, and serve with lots of butter. It keeps very well and is wonderful toasted if you're not eating it fresh (though why wouldn't you?!)