I have this thing for picking things off trees and eating them. The fruit calls to me. I can spot the first fig ripening on a tree or find a wee wild strawberry growing under a carpet of green.
So when I caught a glimmer of orange in a tree while biking around my hometown of Charleston, you’re damn right I screeched to a halt right then and there to investigate.
Upon closer inspection, I found that each branch of the tree had dozens of clusters of ripening fruit, about the size of apricots, ranging in color from green to neon orange. After asking around I found out that these fruits, which I was now noticing on every street corner, backyard, and alleyway, were called loquats—and that’s when my obsession began.
According to the University of California Cooperative Extension, the loquat is “an ancient fruit, related to the apple [and] the quince,” which explains its tart-sweet flavor. Native to China and Japan, the loquat has spread to many tropical and subtropical sections of the world. I can personally attest to their presence in South Carolina and Texas, where their tang is a welcome refresher from the hot, humid air. They’re also apparently ubiquitous in Florida and Southern California.
The loquat is the platypus of the fruit world; it seems to combine familiar species into something completely new. It has smooth, semi-fuzzed skin of a plum and the inner texture of a grape. When you bite into one, you’re met with an initial sour zip of lemon that gives way to a smooth, mango-like sweetness. Don’t try one before they’re squarely between orange and yellow on the color wheel or they’ll be way too tart.
After sampling my first loquat, I began to brainstorm ways to use my newly-discovered foraged fruit in the kitchen. But when I started asking the internet, my friends, and strangers on the street what they did with their crop of loquats, I found surprisingly little information.
Besides finding a stray recipe for chutney or jelly, when I Googled “best loquat recipes,” a tumbleweed essentially blew across my computer screen. People I.R.L. seemed similarly stumped. While everyone I questioned said they liked eating loquats occasionally, hardly anyone seemed to cook with them. Though I did hear tell of someone baking them into a loquat chess pie and a local brewery adding them into their beer…
As I’m not really a pie person (cue gasps!), I decided to do to loquats what I always want to do to fruit—baked it into an upside down cake. Inspired by this rhubarb-y recipe from Kenzi Wilbur, I stewed the halved, de-seeded fruit with brown sugar and butter until they started to slump, poured the mixture into a pan, and topped it with big slumps of thick, buttermilk batter.
The result proved my theory that any fruit can—and should—be the star of an upside-down cake...