Have you seen one of these? Most of my compatriots in the Pacific Northwest have never seen or tasted a pawpaw. I was lucky enough to inherit a few hardy-breed trees when I moved to this property. Usually they are found (and with some effort!) in deciduous woods, especially near rivers, in the Southeast. We definitely had them in Saxapahaw, NC, the riverside hamlet I moved here from. But they were still exotic to me, something I imagined had thousands of years of indigenous eats under its belt. Late autumn in pawpaw time.
What is this weird fruit? Well it looks kind of like a small papaya, smells like vanilla and bananas, and has a custardy texture like an avocado. If you like wine, think of it as the Chenin Blanc of forest fruits! You pick it when it’s soft like a very ripe nectarine. Then you peel it gently, and with your fists, squeeze the flesh and many annoying seeds apart. Separate the seeds, keep the flesh. If you’re lucky you’ll find them in Southeastern farmers’ markets right now. It’s one of those forager-folk treats, for sure!
Can you grow them? Yes, but know your zone. First of all, you’re going to need to plant a male and female tree if you want fruit. I think in about 5 years, like a dwarf apple tree, you’ll have it. Then they make more babies. So if you have a wettish, woodsy area, and want a grove, that’s a good spot for it. If you live outside of the Southeast, look for a nursery that grows hardy ones that will grow in your climate (example: Raintree Nursery in the Pacific Northwest). In the spring they produce vivid and peculiar maroon blossoms, like little pointy hats, which are a beautiful addition to the other orchard bloomery. Honey and mason bees love those vermillion blossoms. Bears also love pawpaws. It is the truth, so be prepared to share. If you must pick them before fully ripened, place them in a bag and let them sit in there until soft and fragrant.
I just harvested my basket, and left some for the deer and bear. If you have chickens, they’ll also appreciate pecking at the flesh but the seeds are likely toxic to them.
To cook or bake with pawpaw, separate the flesh from the seeds, and puree with a mixer or blender. I like to add a little lemon essence to it to balance out its raw, slightly yeasty bouquet. But as a baker, think of it as a banana flavor with a ripe avocado texture. You can use the puree as a flourish (the old squirt bottle filigree for pretty desserts), in yogurt or kefir, in ice cream base, smoothies, pancakes. This time I’ve made a dense loaf-style cake with a glaze. Here’s my recipe. This is a dense, delicious autumnal cake, and can be frozen for future teatimes or the holidays.
ANNIE’S PAWPAW CAKE WITH BROWN BUTTER GLAZE
1.5 cups pawpaw puree
3/4 cup sugar or sorghum syrup
2 fresh eggs
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla bean paste, or 2 tsp good vanilla
10 shakes of DoTerra lemon essential oil (or zest and juice of 1 lemon)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 cup unsweetened coconut chips OR walnut pieces (optional)
Cake flour (add 1 cup at a time until right consistency)
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 F
Grease cake, cupcake or bread pans (I use coconut oil spray and line bottom of pans with parchment paper)
In mixing bowl, combine pawpaw puree, eggs, vanilla, butter, and sugar. Mix thoroughly until blended. Add dry ingredients (start with 1 cup of flour). Then add buttermilk. Add flour as needed until you get the consistency of really thick cake batter that sticks to your spatula.
Bake about 30 minutes, maybe more, until you get a clean knife out of the center. It’s a dense cake, but you want to make sure it’s cooked through. Cool on wire rack.
Make the glaze.
BROWN BUTTER GLAZE
Half a stick of unsalted butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
4 tbsp. buttermilk
Melt the butter in a pan, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon. As it turns a light brown, remove from heat. Add the remaining ingredients. Use the powdered sugar carefully to get a glaze consistency.
Pour over the still-warm loaves. Sprinkle top of cake with a few pinches Maldon salt.
Use your fingers to scrape up remaining frosting and enjoy the moment.