Pawpaws are a native North American fruit that is finally receiving some well-deserved attention after languishing in relative obscurity for decades.
Of course, the pawpaw has been here all along, but has been known & treasured by a few devoted fans, largely living in rural areas where the wild pawpaw has always flourished.
This pawpaw, the largest fruit native to the United States, once grew wild throughout much of the Eastern US, especially along the fertile, moist banks of rivers and streams. Its flavor, which has been compared to a blend of mango, pineapple and ripe banana, is complex and quite remarkable. Pawpaws were an important food source for Native Americans, early settlers and pioneers alike. When supplies ran low in 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition was sustained by the nourishing pawpaws which grew prolifically along the Missouri River.
As the old frontier of Midwestern America became settled and “civilized,” and their natural habitat slowly eroded, it seems that pawpaws were gradually displaced by other, more familiar European fruits. Remember Johnny Appleseed? Fortunately, the humble pawpaw is finally regaining its rightful status as a delicious, nutritious and increasingly available fruit. A dedicated and rapidly growing group of growers and fans have helped to bring the pawpaw out of the shadows and back into the spotlight. There are now local pawpaw festivals springing up every fall in communities all over the Central East and especially the Midwest.
Media attention helps too. A recent feature on NPR has generated a significant amount of interest and has helped spread the word about the tasty fruit that once grew so widely and was so important during America’s early years (read the article and see the video here).
Pawpaw Crème Brûlée with Bourbon Smoked Sugar
Many experienced cooks seem to be intimidated by the thought of making crème brûlée. That’s a real pity, because a great crème brûlée is not really that hard to make. It’s not that often that we get to have this much fun in the kitchen. I mean, you get to cook with a blow torch. Who can’t like that?
It does take a little bit of planning to make a decent custard, but if you assemble all of your equipment in advance and know what to expect, any novice should be able to turn out a decent custard or crème brûlée on the first try. Every cook has his own favorite recipe and method, and some may disagree, but this basic recipe has always worked for me.
You can vary the ingredients according to your preferences, but I follow a basic ratio of 4 cups liquid to 4 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks. The liquid component includes the milk, heavy cream, half-and-half and any purees, extracts or booze you plan to use. I’m not a purist, so I don’t insist on all egg yolk or heavy cream. You’ll find that you’ll get different results with different combinations of ingredients. Obviously, the higher the amount of cream and egg yolks, the richer and creamier the flavor, texture and consistency will be, but the calories will be proportionately higher too.
Without further ado, here’s my recipe for Pawpaw Crème Brûlée.
- 4 whole eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup pawpaw puree
- 1/2 cup raw sugar
- pinch of salt
- 7 or 8 Tbsp Bourbon Smoked Sugar (regular raw or white sugar will work too)
Select 4 or 5 fully ripened pawpaws. Ripe pawpaws will be very dark, almost black and very soft to the touch. Halve them and scoop out the soft, custardy flesh with a spoon, discarding the skin and seeds (unless you’re saving them to plant later, but that’s another story). Put the pawpaw pulp into a small food processor or blender and puree until smooth. You should have about 1 cup.
Combine the pawpaw puree with all of the other ingredients and whisk or blend well until all ingredients are completely incorporated. Set aside for a moment.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Position the rack in the center of the oven.
Prepare a large baking pan with sides that are at least 3 inches high. Put 7 or 8 custard cups or ramekins in the baking pan and fill them almost to the brim with the pawpaw custard mixture. If you don’t have custard cups, you can use a single smaller shallow baking dish, filling it about 2 inches deep.
This is the tricky part: carefully slide the baking pan with the filled custard cups into the preheated oven. Fill the baking pan with very hot water until it’s about halfway up the sides of the custard cups. Bake for 40 minutes or until the very center of each custard is still slightly loose and liquidy, but the edges are set. Very carefully remove the baking pan from the oven, taking care that the water does not slosh over into the custard. Don’t worry that the custards are underdone – the internal heat of the custard and the water will cook them the rest of the way. Remember, no one likes an overcooked, rubber custard. Well, almost no one.
When the custards have cooled sufficiently to handle, remove them from the baking pan, wipe the bottoms and sides, and set them on a baking rack to cool completely.
Now comes the fun part! Working one custard at a time, carefully spoon about a tablespoon of sugar on the top surface, spreading it in an even layer all the way out to the edges. Regular white or raw sugar will work, as will brown sugar which has been laid out on wax paper to dry out, but for this special recipe, I used a very cool Bourbon Smoked Sugar from Bourbon Barrel Foods of Louisville, Kentucky. This raw sugar is smoked over oak staves from barrels that were used to age bourbon. The smoky aroma is powerful, but the flavor is surprisingly mellow and delicate. The smokiness of this incredible sugar added an extra-special touch to the exotic flavor of the pawpaw custard. Highly recommended!
Now, take your trusty blow torch, either the common garden variety handyman’s propane blowtorch (every chef & cook should have one in the kitchen) or the smaller butane-powered torches that have become common in recent years. Either one will work, but the small torch is a little easier to handle and control. Once the torch is lit and burning steadily, carefully play the flame over the sugar, taking care not to linger too long in one place. The sugar will quickly begin to bubble and melt. It’s OK if it gets a little dark here and there - that adds a nice “burnt sugar” flavor, but try to avoid burning or scorching the sugar too much. You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. It doesn’t matter if you mess up a little. Remember, in cooking, we can always eat our mistakes!
Once the sugar has been nicely melted, set the custard (now a Crème Brûlée!) aside, and move on to the next one. Only glaze the number of custards you plan on serving within the next hour or two. If you make them too far in advance, the crisp sugar-glazed surface will soften and melt.
At last, the moment of truth. There is nothing quite like breaking through the crackly sugar surface of a crème brûlée and plunging your spoon into the meltingly soft custard that lies beneath. Enjoy.