My favorite banana custard involves no cooking whatsoever. No, it doesn’t involve opening a package of store-bought “custard” either. In fact, it requires a stroll along the creek with my nose up in late summer: I am looking for native wild pawpaws (Asimina triloba) that are ripening now and in early fall, sometimes as late as October – depending on the tree and its location. They aren’t showy, but they are easy to recognize: small understory trees with large vaguely-tropical-looking drooping leaves that turn a bright pure yellow in mid-fall. They grow mostly along bottomland creeks, forming ever expanding thickets, often at the edge of the woods.
The fruit itself looks rather like a small kidney-shaped mango, occasionally single but mostly growing in small clusters, sometimes hanging down, sometimes up. Ripe, they yield softly under finger pressure, and their coloring change from green to yellowish green or yellow – sometimes with black blotches. The fruit (which contains several large brown shiny and smooth seeds) can be eaten at different stages of maturity, different people having different preferences. But don’t eat them when they are green and hard (they aren’t tannicly unpleasant like persimmons, but they don’t have much flavor!)
The ripe flesh is pale apricot hued (the riper the fruit, the deeper the color), creamy, custardy in texture, with flavors of banana, mango, guava – or cherimoya. No surprise that some of its common names are Hoosier banana, prairie banana, Kentucky banana, Ozark banana etc. It’s also a reminder that pawpaws’ cousins are tropical denizens (think Custard Apples or Cherimoya). However, pawpaws are firmly native to our area, the Northern Virginia Piedmont and – more broadly – to eastern North America. It is in fact our largest native fruit. And it is a shame that many people don’t know it.
The biology of pawpaw flowers is truly fascinating. The maroon flowers which look somewhat like (unrelated) wild ginger flowers (Asarum canadense) appear in April in our area on still leafless branches, nodding down. They have both male and female parts. They act as a female flower first and then – if not pollinated – as a male flower. An individual tree is generally not self fertile (although reading through the available literature some may be – we still have a bit to learn about pawpaws!). Two unrelated trees are required for cross-pollination to occur. Also required are carrion flies and specific beetles that move the pollen around. Honey bees are just not up to the task! As a result, wild trees are typically shy fruiters. But they bear significantly better if they grow in a sunny spot.
Improved cultivars produce more, bigger and fleshier fruit. Buy two unrelated trees and plant them now. Since they can take 7 years to fruit, NOW is when you should plant. Hurry. They are worth it. Transplanting a wild seedling is chancy: they have a deep tap root that’s easily damaged… and they don’t produce that much. If you want wild, forage.
Even if not for the fruit – plant them for the love of the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly (pawpaws are the only host for its larva) or for the love of wild turkeys. Many other wild creatures relish the fruit too, including raccoons and possums, causing me sometimes to collect slightly under ripe fruit; they’ll finish ripening in the house – a bowl of them will perfume a room with aromas ripe banana, mango and guava.
So try a ripe pawpaw if you have a chance, and you might just be reaching for another … and another.
Oh.. how do you eat them? In the woods, you simply break a fruit (when ripe they break easily) and suck the custardy flesh, discarding the skin and seeds right there with the hope that they give birth to more seedlings. In polite company, you cut the fruit open, and spoon the flesh out. Your tongue works the seeds out. Their flavor is delicate: I prefer to use them in uncooked dishes such as mousse, parfait, smoothies or ice-creams.
Pawpaw Parfait (for 4)
- 1 cup seedless pawpaw flesh from very ripe pawpaws *
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon mild honey
- 1 cup fall raspberries
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Puree the pawpaw with the lime and honey in blender until very smooth.
Toss the washed berries with sugar and set aside for a few minutes.
Whip the whipping cream until soft peak form. Sift in powdered sugar, and whisk until well mixed in. Fold in the pawpaw puree.
Choose 4 pretty glasses. In each glass, layer raspberries, pawpaw mousse, raspberries, mousse and finish with a few raspberries.
May prepare up to 2 hours ahead and kept refrigerated until ready to serve.
* To make pawpaw puree: Halve pawpaws, spoon out flesh, and squeeze seeds out with your hands.
This post first appeared – with minor modifications and without pictures – as an article “In season now: our fascinating native pawpaw” in the September 22, 2011 issue of the Rappahannock News.