Most of the people living in the Mid-Ohio Valley have never tasted a pawpaw. These egg-shaped fruits have a freckled green skin, and look unassuming enough on the outside that they go unnoticed even by avid hikers who frequently tromp through the woods.
But in the early fall, our fertile region is lousy with pawpaws. Blennerhasset Island teems with them, as do the forests that the many newer mixed-use trails in Marietta wind through. Pawpaws take a little work, both to find and to eat, but they are worth it.
Even though I was raised here, my own pawpaw origin story goes back only three years. I first heard of pawpaws while living on the West Coast; various MOV friends told me of odd tree fruits with a banana-mango flavor. “There’s even a pawpaw festival,” they said. As a chef, I was intrigued by the existence of this exotic fruit I’d grown up so close to, but never experienced. Though I was living in a major city with a cosmopolitan food scene and restaurants offering every type of cuisine imaginable, I yearned to get my hands on some of those elusive pawpaws.
Eventually I did, and in the most unintentional manner possible: in September of 2012, while on my daily tromp through the stretch of the North Country Trail that passes by Washington State Community College, I noticed a squashed object with a bright yellow-orange interior smack dab in the middle of my path, and I immediately knew it was a pawpaw. After poking around a bit, I saw more like it on the trees, tasted one, and was instantly hooked.
Pawpaws do have a tropical banana-mango flavor, yes, but they are also unlike anything you have ever tasted in your life. Their flesh is creamy and succulent, their aroma heady and intoxicating. Every year following that initial encounter in the woods, I’ve gathered as many pawpaws as possible and experimented with them in the kitchen. Those experiments led to The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook, a recipe zine I recently published. I wanted to share my passion for pawpaws with others, and in that spirit of community, a bunch of local talent collaborated with me—Bobby Rosenstock of justAjar design press did the covers, Leigh Cox drew pen and ink illustrations, and Nikki Butler did the layout.
I’m sharing one of my favorite recipes from The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. If you hustle, you, too, can gather enough pawpaws to make this old-fashioned pawpaw pudding. Pawpaws are a little challenging to work with in the kitchen, and I address those challenges in my book, plus offer tips for foraging, storing, and prepping, along with 12 original recipes and a list of resources. The Pocket Pawpaw Cookcook (you can order it here) is intended to inspire you, whether it means spending more time in wild spaces, reconnecting with forgotten foodways, or improvising in the kitchen.
This is an old-fashioned baked pudding, not as creamy as a custard but smooth and rich, with intriguing caramel notes and an undeniable pawpaw kick.
With a food processor, it takes only minutes to blitz that batter together. (Note: minutes blitzing together batter excludes gathering of pawpaws. It’s taken me up to 40 minutes to find and haul home ten pounds. Call it your exercise for the day.)
- 2/3 cup (3.1 ounces ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2/3 to ¾ cup granulated sugar (I prefer a less-sweet pudding)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 cup pawpaw pulp
- ½ cup buttermilk, preferably not low-fat
- ¼ cup half-and-half
- 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Heat the oven to 350˚ F and position a rack in the middle. Grease a 9 by 9-inch baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic.
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda to combine.
In a large glass measuring cup or medium bowl, combine the pawpaw, buttermilk, half-and-half, and vanilla bean paste. With the machine running, add the pawpaw-buttermilk mixture through the feed tube. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides, and add the melted butter with the machine running. Your batter should have the consistency of pancake batter.
Pour the batter into the greased dish. Bake until the center is set but still jiggly (like a pumpkin pie), about 30 to 45 minutes. The sides of the pudding will rise up and brown, while the interior will be flat, shiny, and amber-colored. Let cool to room temperature and serve with crème fraiche or whipped cream. I like this for breakfast with a big dollop of Greek yogurt, but I could say that about most any dessert.
The pudding will keep 2-3 days at room temperature. I suppose you could refrigerate it, but it tastes better at room temperature.
-From The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook by Sara Bir, Copyright 2015 Sara Bir/The Sausagetatian
A Marietta native and a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Sara Bir is the food editor for Paste Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Best Food Writing 2014, Saveur, Lucky Peach, The Oregonian, and other publications. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.