The first Europeans to see the Mississippi Valley were soldiers of Hernando De Soto’s party who were raiding their way across the countryside in pursuit of gold for the Spanish Empire. De Soto’s men perhaps thought they were on the right path when they found themselves in country thick with fortified agricultural settlements. They witnessed villagers tending riverbank orchards lush with the largest tree fruit on the continent. To the conquistador eyes of De Soto’s men, the fruit on which the locals feasted looked like the papaya they had grown to know from their time in the Caribbean.
De Soto’s search for the City of Gold proved fruitless, but the surviving members of his party returned to report this discovery of what came to be called the pawpaw.
A few centuries later, Thomas Jefferson, who grew pawpaw himself in his garden at Monticello, sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark across he continent in search of the Northwest Passage. On the last legs of their return journey east, Lewis and Clark found themselves low on provisions. Lewis’ journals describe how, to survive their trek across the Missouri countryside, his men scavenged “pappaw” from the trees that were abundant in the area, perhaps descendants of the very trees De Soto’s men saw three hundred years before.
So, I found myself one day searching for pawpaw. The pawpaw, by any rational account, should not exist. Or, at the least, it should not exist here. The pawpaw, with the flavor and texture of concentrated banana ice cream, is an essentially tropical fruit that seems as though it must be from Brazil or Thailand, yet it thrives in the temperate Midwest. I asked around. No one I knew seemed to have heard of it, let alone know where to find it. For my part, I had only an uncertain memory of it at all: Did I once taste it as a kid in Michigan?
Then I learned about Oriana. Oriana, of Oriana’s Orchard and Nursery, has built a deserved reputation as the guru of the pear.
And, she had pawpaw. Or, at least she would for the several days in early fall when the fruit is ripe.
When the season came, I searched for her at Chicago’s Green City Market. Tracking her down, I purchased a few ripe fruit. With Oriana warning me to use the pawpaws quickly, lest they perish, I rushed home to see what could be made of this impossible fruit.
Let’s get some basics out of the way.
This is a pawpaw.
(Or a “paw paw,” or “papaia” to the De Soto party, or “pappaw” to Meriwether Lewis.)
Where banana has become standardized, monocultured, and blandly commodified, local pawpaw, despite its variety, has never taken hold as a culinary standby. Pawpaw — highly seasonal, apparently tricky to pollinate, and extremely perishable — fails to translate well to the supermarket shelf. Today, the pawpaw seems nearly forgotten even to native midwesterners, as towns like Paw Paw, Michigan, named by pioneers thankful for the fruitful bounty, are more eager to trumpet their young wines than their historic pawpaws.
Fragrance: Ancient, powerful, tropical. Far more banana republic than Banana Republic. Imagine that it is the 1920s. You have joined a band of Central American guerillas to liberate your country from the oppression of United Fruit. But your comrades have quickly turned on you, leaving you to survive shoeless in an abandoned banana plantation, where your last sense as you fade from consciousness is of the inescapable smell of green banana and fermenting fruit juice.
This is what your kitchen will smell like after leaving two pawpaws on your counter for a day and a half.
Structure: The size and shape of a mango. A leathery, reptilian skin, green mottled with brown, surrounding a pale yellow flesh. The flesh has a texture somewhere between a very ripe mango and vanilla flan. Two rows of large seeds are embedded in the flesh, loosely strung together with fibers, as in tamarind.
Flavor: Sweet. A banana flavor far more intense and complex than any banana. Rich tropical notes with hints of vanilla and melon. A bit of vitamin C sourness. A finish with a slight astringency.
The flavor components of pawpaw are extremely volatile and fair poorly in high heat, so the best uses tends to be in cool custards and frozen desserts.
RECIPE: Pawpawpawpaw (pawpaw, four ways).
(cookie, sorbet, sticky rice, pot de creme).
Pawpawpawpaw. 1: Macaron cookie with pawpaw cream.
Pawpaw pureed with a little cream is almost indistinguishable in color or texture from a yolky egg custard, but possesses a powerful green banana flavor.
Here, a simple macaron serves a platform to display a clear pawpaw flavor.
Make pawpaw cream. Extract flesh of one medium-sized pawpaw: Cut pawpaw into large chunks, removing what peel and seeds will come without losing flesh. Place pawpaw slices in a large plastic zipper bag and seal, being careful to remove as much air as possible. Squish – manipulate the contents of the bag to loosen pulp from skin seeds and fibers. With scissors, cut corner of plastic bag to create an opening 1/4-1/2 inch across. Force pulp through strainer.
Puree pulp of one pawpaw with 1.5 tbsp. heavy cream until very smooth. Transfer to piping bag.
Make cookie. Make or purchase macaron shell. (The cocoa one used here was bought from Wicker Park’s Alliance Bakery.) Pipe about 1 tbsp. pawpaw cream into shell.
Pulp of 1 pawpaw.
1.5 tbsp. heavy cream.
Pawpawpawpaw. 2. Pawpaw sorbet.
As pawpaw-growing Thomas Jefferson was eagerly awaiting news from the paw-paw eating Lewis and Clark expedition, he was just as eagerly promoting “ice-cream” in the American culinary consciousness.
A dilute sorbet is a good vehicle to express the flavor of pawpaw without an overpowering pawpaw taste. Strictly speaking this frozen dessert a sorbet laitier or sherbet, because it contains some milkfat, but not nearly enough to be rightfully called “ice-cream.” Even with churning, the texture is very dense, almost like a gelato.
Unlike most sorbets, no stabilizers are added, so this is best served immediately after churning.
Make a weak simple syrup, dissolving 1 part sugar into 1.5 part water in a saucepan over low heat. Allow syrup to chill. Puree the pulp of two pawpaws with 3 tbsp. heavy cream. This will result in about .5 – .75 cup of pulp. Whisk 1 part pulp into 2 parts chilled syrup.
Churn in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s direction. Pay attention, as the dense pawpaw pulp while tend to catch in the machine.
Garnish with a strip of fried baby banana or a ginger cookie.
2 ripe pawpaws.
3 tbsp. heavy cream.
About 1.5 cup water.
About .75 cup sugar.
Pawpawpawpaw. 3: Pawpaw and fuyu persimmon with honeydewed sticky rice.
Sweet sticky rice partnered with mango or durian is a common Southeast Asian street dessert.
Here, the temperate autumn fruits of pawpaw and persimmon replace tropical durian and mango.
Both the texture and flavor of raw pawpaw remind me of durian, albeit cleaned of durian’s aftertaste of horror and and dirty socks. Firm fuyu persimmon offers the same combination of a sweet, fruit sugary start with an astringent finish as ripe pawpaw.
Make honeydew syrup. Puree 4 cups cut honeydew flesh and strain through cheesecloth. Skim off any floating solids. Add 1 tbsp. lime juice and 1 cup water. In a saucepan, dissolve 1 cup sugar into liquid. Set aside.
Make sweet sticky rice. Steam 1 cup glutinous rice until tender. (Or cheat and run across the street to the local Thai place). In a bowl, mix sticky rice into coconut milk. After 15 minutes, drain rice. Wrap rice tightly in a strip of banana leaf, akin to a tamale or sushi roll. Poach roll in gently boiling honeydew syrup for about 5 min. (The rice will pick up a melony glaze.) Remove and unwrap rice roll. Pour out all but .5 cup of liquid. Reduce remaining honeydew liquid until it becomes a thick syrup.
Slice pawpaw and fuyu persimmon. Slice rolled rice into a cylinder. Slice an unpeeled, firm pawpaw to form a round: take a firm, but ripe pawpaw, peel on. At a point about three-quarters of the fruit’s length, slice across the width of the pawpaw, hoping to avoid a seed. Once the seed is located, slice again at a point that will avoid the seed. Remove peel from round with a paring knife.
Slice ripe fuyu persimmon into wedges to mimic mango. Plate rice roll, pawpaw and fuyu persimmon on banana leaf and drizzle with honeydew syrup.
Firm but ripe pawpaw.
1 cup sugar.
1 cup cooked glutinous rice.
1/2 cup coconut milk.
4 cup cut honeydew melon.
1 tbsp. lime juice.
1 sq. ft. banana leaf.
Pawpawpawpaw. 4: Pawpaw pot de creme with caramelized walnut.
Make custard. Extract the pulp from one medium-sized pawpaw and set aside.
In a saucepan, dissolve 2 tbsp. sugar in heavy cream. Add nutmeg and allspice and allow to simmer, without scalding for about ten minutes.
In small heat-proof bowl, whisk two egg yolks with remaining sugar. Temper the eggs: whisking continuously, pour a small amount of hot, but not boiling cream into egg yolk. Slowly mix entire egg yolk mixture into cream.
Set up a water bath in a roasting pan in oven preheated to 300 degrees.
Whisk pawpaw pulp into cream mixture. Pour mixture into ramekins. Place ramekins in water bath and bake until surface shimmies, about 30 minutes.
Remove ramekins, cover, and chill for 6 hours.
Caramelize walnuts. In a saucepan, dissolve sugar in apple cider vinegar. Add salt and pepper. Coat walnut pieces evenly with mixture. Spread walnut pieces in a layer in a foil-lined baking pan, pouring enough remaining syrup over walnuts to thoroughly cover. Bake in an oven preheated to 375 degrees, stirring occasionally. Transfer to rack to cool. Top pot de creme with warm walnuts.
For the pot de creme.
Yolk of 2 eggs.
.75 cup heavy cream.
.3 cup pawpaw puree.
3 tbsp. sugar.
Pinch ground nutmeg
For the walnuts.
.25 cup apple cider vinegar
.5 cup sugar