Pickin’ Up Pawpaws, Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch…
Some of us may still remember this song from childhood, but few of us have ever tasted a real pawpaw.
Pawpaws have become a curiosity, little known to most of us, even though they have a long history in North America. The largest edible fruit native to the United States, pawpaws are most commonly found near riverbanks and in the understory of the fertile forests of the eastern United States.
Pawpaws have a creamy, custard-like flesh with a tropical flavor, which is often described as a combination of mango, pineapple, and banana. While there are many recipes for using pawpaws, most enthusiasts agree that the best way to enjoy this highly nutritious North American native fruit is to eat them fresh when they have ripened to perfection.
A Little Pawpaw History
For centuries, pawpaws were a delicious food source for Native Americans, European explorers, settlers and wild animals.
Native Americans are thought to have spread the pawpaw across the eastern U.S. to eastern Kansas and Texas, and from the Great Lakes almost to the Gulf of Mexico.
The importance of pawpaws to the early pioneers can hardly be overstated. As the first settlers left the eastern colonies and pushed west into the frontier, they often lived off the land, hunting for wild game and picking the nutritious pawpaws that grew abundantly. In the fall of 1810, the Lewis and Clark expedition depended almost entirely on wild pawpaws and nuts when their supplies ran low..
Pawpaws were well known to the founding fathers of the American republic. It’s documented that George Washington was fond of pawpaw fruit, and of course, pawpaws were among the many plants Thomas Jefferson cultivated at his estate, Monticello.
Oddly, over the years, the pawpaw fell into obscurity and was replaced by more familiar cultivated fruits, such as apples, pears and cherries. Fortunately for us, the pawpaw is making a comeback.
Today, dozens of commercial nurseries market pawpaw seeds or trees in the US and there are many distinct cultivars currently available. The Pawpaw Foundation at Kentucky State University is actively working to promote the return of the fruit by supporting pawpaw cultivation, production and use.
Thanks to the efforts of growers and researchers – and the many pawpaw lovers in rural areas of the central east, where pawpaws never fell out of favor – we can still enjoy this noble American fruit today.
The Pawpaw has a creamy, custard-like flesh with a tropical flavor, which is often described as a combination of mango, pineapple, and banana. Most enthusiasts agree that the best way to enjoy pawpaws is to eat them raw after they are picked from trees and are perfectly ripe.
Fully ripe pawpaws last only a few days at room temperature, but may be kept for a week in the refrigerator. Allow fruit to finish ripening at room temperature before eating. Scoop out the delicious, creamy flesh with a spoon and enjoy. Never eat the skin or seeds – they are mildly toxic.
Storing and Serving Pawpaws
Fresh pawpaws are only in season for a short time, roughly late August to mid September.
While pawpaw fruits are highly perishable, they do refrigerate well. They may be stored at standard refrigerator temperatures for about a week if fully ripe and if underripe, for almost 3 weeks ripening at room temperatures.
Once fully ripened, pawpaw fruit can only hold for 2 to 3 days at room temperature. If the fruit is allowed to continue to ripen, the skin develops blotches and gradually darkens to an overall dark color. In the process, the flavor deepens, developing caramel tones. Many old-timers prefer their pawpaws ripened this way – and some will swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s the ONLY way to eat pawpaws.
Since many components of pawpaw flavor are highly volatile, the best pawpaw recipes involve little or no cooking. With pawpaw season in full swing, we finally had the perfect opportunity to make something we’ve been thinking about for a while – pawpaw mousse! The creamy texture and tropical fruit flavors of ripe pawpaws are just right in a light & airy mousse.
If you’ve never made mousse before, it may seem like intimidating process, but nothing could be easier. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be making mousse like a pro in no time.
- 1 lb fresh ripe pawpaws (about two or three)
- 3 eggs, separated, at room temperature
- 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2 Tbsp powdered sugar, divided
- Pinch cream of tartar (optional)
Step One: Start with Ripe Pawpaws
Ripe pawpaws are pretty ugly. Once off the tree, their smooth pale green skin begins to darken and soften like an overripe banana. That’s OK, though – it means that they’re at their peak of flavor.
Step Two: Slice, seed and scoop
Split the pawpaws roughly down the middle with a sharp knife to reveal the pale creamy flesh and dark seeds inside. Pick out the seeds (don’t eat them – they can be mildly poisonous, as can the skin) and discard. Scoop out the flesh with a spoon as you would an avocado. Be sure to scrape every morsel of delicious flesh from the inside of the skin!
Step Three: Puree the pawpaw pulp
Place the pawpaw pulp into a food processor blender and process for several minutes until very smooth and creamy. Remove the pureed pulp to a large mixing bowl and set aside.
In the top half of a double boiler, whisk together the egg yolks and ¼ cup sugar until light colored and creamy. Place over the barely simmering double boiler and continue to whisk until the mixture begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Take care to keep the heat low and whisk continually so the egg/sugar mixture does not “scramble”. Remove the top of the double boiler from the heat and continue to whisk for another minute or two. Set aside to cool completely, then mix into the pureed pawpaw pulp.
Step Four: Whip the egg whites & cream
In a clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites, 1 Tbsp of the powdered sugar and cream of tartar (if using) with a hand mixer on medium speed. When the egg white mixture begins to thicken and become frothy, increase the speed to medium high and continue to beat the mixture until soft peaks form (see picture). Do not overbeat! Set aside.
Now, in another clean bowl, beat the cream and remaining Tbsp of powdered sugar using a hand mixer. As with the egg whites, beat the mixture on medium until it begins to thicken, then increase the speed to medium high and beat until it reaches the soft peak stage. Set aside.
Step Five: Fold it all together
Now for the fun part! This where things really start coming together. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the pawpaw/egg yolk mixture.
Folding is a simple, but critically important process that every good cook should take the time to understand & master. Using a spatula, simply gently scoop from the bottom and lift over the top repeatedly until the two mixtures are thoroughly incorporated together. This is the most crucial step in achieving a light and delicately textured mousse. Mixing too vigorously will cause the air trapped in the beaten egg whites (or whipped cream) to escape and the resulting mousse will be heavy & dense.
Once the pawpaw and egg white mixtures are thoroughly blended, repeat the process with the whipped cream, remembering to fold very gently, but completely.
Is It Mousse Yet?
Carefully spoon the mixture into whatever cups or glasses you’d like to serve it in - or do what I did and create a makeshift pastry bag.
Take a 1 gallon plastic Ziploc bag, open it up and spread it over a bowl. Fill the bag with the mousse and close it tightly, then snip off one corner with a pair of scissors – voila! – a pastry bag. Put the tip of the bag near the bottom of your serving dish or glass and gently squeeze.
Once you’ve piped or spooned the mousse into your dishes, refrigerate for at least an hour.
Garnish with fresh mint (and extra whipped cream, if desired.