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Beyond Pumpkin Pie

It's fall in California and local pears, pomegranates and persimmons give bakers plenty of reasons for new holiday traditions.

November 18, 2001|SYLVIA THOMPSON | Special to the Times

In late October, I drove up north to visit my daughter and her family in Santa Cruz. After lunching downtown one day, Dinah and I walked over to the Museum of Art and History. She led me to her favorite exhibit, which featured the daily life of Santa Cruz County from earliest times. We ambled through the centuries, dioramas crowded with tools, furniture, clothing, journals and keepsakes of each period. But when we reached "The Home Front: Santa Cruz County's War Front During World War II," I stood still.

There, lifted straight from my L.A. childhood, in a small kitchen that reminded me of my best friend's mother's, were food ration books and coupons, Victory Garden seed packets, gas rationing stickers and cupboards crowded with boxes of spices, sacks of grain, dried beans, dehydrated soup mixes and Mason jars brimming with home-canned green beans, cherries and rhubarb. The robin's egg blue stove made my mouth water, with its long legs, stacked ovens, shelf for raising dough, trash burner and two warmers.

Driving home down Highway 101, signs heralded fruit stands with "Apples! Pears! Persimmons!," and suddenly I was 9 years old in Jenny's mother's kitchen, baking cookies--persimmon cookies. In their garden, small lanterns of persimmons shone from a leafless tree. These were the first cookies I ever made, and I was mesmerized putting the dough together. (I'd long been my mother's dinner party sous chef, peeling vegetables, tossing salads, stirring stews, but baking wasn't one of her passions and so I'd never baked.)

First Jenny and I smooshed the fruit's jellylike pulp with forks on a wooden board. Then in a deep bowl, we took turns using a stout spoon to beat and beat until the shortening and honey (sugar was rationed) turned fluffy. To this creamy mixture we plopped in an egg, dropped in the orange mash, dumped in a cloud of flour and whiff of cinnamon, scattered in raisins, stirred feverishly, then daintily pushed blobs off a spoon onto the baking sheets we'd greased with the flats of our hands. After a lifetime of waiting--15 minutes, I was frantic with the fragrance--we opened the oven door. I gasped. The pale blobs had metamorphosed into beautiful amber-gold cakes.

At Paso Robles I turned east. Reaching Interstate 5, the okra aroma of cotton fields was in my nose. A roadside sign touting "Pomegranates!" snapped my thoughts back to Jenny and me at the Eunice Knight Saunders School in Hollywood. Two old pomegranate trees graced the schoolyard. Every October even scrappy first-grade boys didn't climb the trees lest the limbs break and the fruits be smashed, and even snooty fifth-grade girls didn't wear good dresses lest they be splashed with scarlet. I remember the shock of the fruit's first taste each autumn, sharp-sweet, deeply quenching, delicious. And what fun aiming shots of seeds at friends and enemies alike. So Southern California, kids hanging around at recess, feasting on pomegranates, taking the riches for granted.

Back home in L.A., where our weather had suddenly turned as brisk as Santa Cruz's, I unpacked, all the while haunted by the scent of spiced persimmons baking. It wasn't a child's cookies I longed for but my grown-up rummy persimmon cake (inspired by James Beard's persimmon bread, the recipe has evolved over the years). I was seized with the need to warm chilly days and chillier evenings with the pleasures and comforts of autumn's harvest from my oven.

I called my mother, inviting her to go with me to the farmers market, telling her what I had in mind. I smiled when she told me she didn't find baking a comfort. A challenge, yes. Involving, yes. But not a comfort. For my part, when I'm at sixes and sevens--even when I'm not--I find myself in the kitchen whisking up coffeecake or patting out shortbread. I find baking's rituals--the sifting, kneading, rolling, pinching, smearing, melting, folding--pleasurable. And when something's pleasurable, it gives me comfort deep down. Although I think it unlikely, I hope Ma will feel what I feel about baking one day.

I set off. I was thrilled by what I found at the farmers market. At a time when strawberries and even peaches are boring with their year-aroundness, spying rose-scented quinces, ruby pomegranates, neon persimmons, jewels of cranberries and elegant Seckel pears after most of a year without them is bliss. And apples! Not just Arkansas Blacks and Newtown Pippins (beloved by Jefferson and Franklin, called Pippins these days) but varieties such as Ginger Gold and Sierra Beauty that I'd somehow never seen.

Fruits aren't all of autumn's sweetness. Hazelnuts are among the nuts that tumble from trees in cool weather. I find their unique flavor makes pastry taste European. Got some of those too.

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