Thursday, November 29, 2018

Cook the Books: The Cooking Gene (Persimmon Quick Bread)

The current Cook the Books selection, hosted this time by Simona of Briciole, is The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty.

I've known of Michael W. Twitty for several years.  He is an African-American, Jewish food historian and chef who hails from the DC area where I live, and who has been doing truly interesting work recreating the experiences of early American cooks in authentic kitchens located at various historical landmarks. As a researcher and teller of stories, he has focused a lot of his attention on tracing the path of foods as they have migrated over the centuries with the people who ate them, particularly those whose journeys were against their will as slaves or refugees.  Those stories are the hardest to research, because the chain of ancestral storyteller to listener is so often forcibly broken. Through the path of food as it travels from one area to the next, Michael Twitty's work seeks to reconnect those broken links.

Sticky notes of possible recipe inspiration!
The Cooking Gene is equal parts history, food writing that will make you curious to try things you never have, nostalgia for the foods of your own childhood, along with a good peek at history and science.

You'll find yourself learning about DNA testing's role in helping solve the complexities of tracing roots as a black American.

You'll be caught up in reading a personal memoir and family history that is at times funny and heartwarming and at times absolutely heartbreaking, and then seeing it set against a well researched explanation of how focus on "King Cotton" led to a legacy of malnutrition that still impacts poor black families in the south.

These ingredients all come together in a book that was both riveting and very difficult to read without flinching.

Go ahead and flinch - our history is extremely uncomfortable - and then keep reading. You will know much more when you finish this book than you knew before you started, and you'll find yourself thinking about it long after you've put it down.

I am so beyond impressed by work that went into The Cooking Gene.  But I was totally overwhelmed when it came to choosing what to cook as my inspiration from it. SO. MANY. POSSIBILITIES.  There are a few recipes included, but there were also numerous mentions of foods from the American South, Europe, Africa, Asia... name it.

I decided to take my inspiration from a passage about time spent visiting his Southern relatives as a young man.  In The Cooking Gene, this story includes a passage about persimmons, and it occurred to me that I had never had a persimmon, never much thought about persimmons or had any idea of what they tasted like. 

That same week, to my surprise, persimmons showed up in my produce box, and suddenly, I had to figure out something to do with them.
'Hours later, we would tumble into my paternal grandmother's home. "Ma, you're never going to believe this," he said, peeling back the layer of the bag. My grandmother happily said, "Oh, 'simmons!!"  I took half and, under my father's instruction, made the same persimmon beer that Elijah and George toasted their freedom with in 1865.  My grandmother, who used to use the unripe astringent ones in place of pimple cream, turned her 'simmons into a spicy, molasses-laced persimmon bread, drawing on a recipe from the newspaper to back up her memory of a treat that had been eaten for at least three generations.'  ~ The Cooking Gene, pg 228.
The recipe for persimmon beer is included at the end of the chapter but calls for 10 cups of persimmons and several weeks to ferment, so I wisely decided to try Persimmon Bread instead.

The American variety of persimmon is Diospyros virginiana.

Gee, it would have been great if I'd taken a picture of the persimmons before I cut them!
What came in my box was the more commercially available Fuyu persimmon, which doesn't have the astringent qualities of other varieties, and so can be eaten while still firm.

This time of year is just an excellent time for sweet quickbreads, so that's what I've done here - I have no idea if this is anything at all like Michael Twitty's grandmother's, but we enjoyed it quite a bit.

The gingerbread loaf is a basic quickbread that uses molasses and buttermilk, along with roasted persimmon where I might otherwise use raisins or other dried fruits.

(Oh... persimmons taste like mild apricots to me, with a bit of honey and a bit of a tropical fruit taste.  I think that Persimmon Beer must tasted a good bit like mead.)

Persimmon Molasses Gingerbread
Makes 1 large loaf or 2 small loaves

3-4 persimmons
2 cups flour, sifted
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup dark molasses
1 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 375F.  If desired, peel the persimmons (I didn't and didn't notice an issue with it) Wash persimmons, cut in quarters and de-seed them, then chop into small, dice-sized cubes.  Spread persimmons on a parchment-covered cookie sheet, drizzle with oil, and roast for about 20 minutes, until they are soft and slightly caramelized.

Let persimmons cool for several minutes and lower oven temperature to 350F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugar, creaming together thoroughly, then add molasses and vanilla, stirring to blend well.  Add the eggs one at a time, mixing between each addition so that the batter is well mixed.

In a second mixing bowl, combine flour, soda, and spices.

Add the dry ingredients, alternating with some of the buttermilk, a little at a time to the wet mixture, mixing well between each addition.

Add the roasted persimmons and pecans to the batter, again mixing well to coat the fruit and nuts.

Spoon batter into greased loaf pans (I used two smaller pans so I'd have one loaf to freeze for later), leaving about an inch of room below the rim.

Bake at 350F for 45-50 minutes.

Let cool on a rack for several minutes before removing them from pans, then let cool completely before serving.

A loaf of a good quick bread like this is just right for keeping on hand for visitors, and is equally good as a fast breakfast, an afterschool snack, or a simple dessert.

I hope you'll check in with Cook the Books to see the round up of what other inspiration bloggers have found inside the pages of The Cooking Gene!

The next four book selections have been announced - maybe one will tempt you to join in!

The Cooking Gene Website
Afroculinaria - Michael J. Twitty


  1. You put it quite well: "a book that was both riveting and very difficult to read without flinching." And I like the sticky note view of your copy of the book: it looks like you have plans for quite some time ;) I am glad you got to taste persimmons. Non-astringent persimmons are great in salads and astringent ones are the best dessert. I know not everybody likes the soft texture: I do. Great choice of recipe: your bread looks lovely. Thank you for your contribution to this edition of Cook the Books.

  2. Love your tabbed copy! I feel like I wimped out with my spice mix....I think this is the most provocative read that CTB has ever featured. I was so glad Simona chose it. Love the bread!!!

  3. I will be looking out for persimmons now. Don't believe I've ever had one either, but your bread is tempting.

  4. I love persimmons - and molasses - and gingerbread. I think I wold love this bread!Thanks for sharing at the What's for Dinner party - hope your week is great!

  5. I've never tried persimmons but they are so pretty. You're right about the thought-provoking nature of Twitty's book. He's very engaging in person too, with any number of stories. Thanks for sharing

  6. Excellent choice...Love how things in our universe collide like this.

  7. Oh wow, this gingerbread looks delicious! Love the combo of ingredients.

  8. Lynda, what a lovely loaf! I can smell it now. How beautifully it would go with a cup of English breakfast tea! And I need to read this book.

  9. This will be a delicious loaf of bread, we will love it! Hope you are enjoying your week and thanks so much for sharing with us at Full Plate Thursday!
    Miz Helen

  10. This sounds like an amazing book, Lynda! As you know, I love food and recipes with a history, so it's right up my street. Thank you for sharing, and for being a part of the Hearth and Soul Link Party. Hope to see you again this week. Hope you have had a lovely weekend!

  11. Would love to try this. Thanks for sharing at To Grandma's House We Go DIY, Crafts, Recipes and More Link party. I pinned this! Hope to have you join us again this week.

  12. I love all the sticky notes! That's the sign of a good book.

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