Pawpaws- so hot right now, am I right?? I only recently discovered the curiously tropical Midwestern pawpaw fruit a couple of years ago. Somehow, unbeknownst to me for my entire life living in this state, a downright tropical tree fruit has been growing in the Indiana woods for centuries. And I’m not alone! “…What the heck is a pawpaw? Like the thing Baloo the bear says in the Jungle Book?” is literally the most common response when you ask someone if they’ve ever had one or heard of it. The poor pawpaw tree has been forgotten, enjoyed primarily by deer, raccoons, and squirrels in the fall. Until now.
As a positive side effect of the farm-to-table/hyperlocal/foraged food movement of the past decade plus, the pawpaw has peeked out from the curtain to become a popular early fall fruit….that is if you know where to find them. That’s the thing– while a well stocked farmers market or co-op might occasionally have them for sale, more often than not you have to know where the trees grow, grab your bucket, and hunt them down. The trees are spindly little things, seemingly unable to bear the weight of the fruit. Their leaves even look tropical, giant boat shapes that are easy to spot as you walk through an Indiana forest full of oak, maple, and walnut trees. The fruit ripens in early fall, but only for a few weeks. The pawpaws themselves are homely, like kidney bean shaped bananas, growing in clusters and almost invisible if you aren’t searching for them. If you can reach them, they are easy to pick, and if the tree is too tall– you can shake it until they fall, trying to catch the delicate easily bruised fruit before it hits the forest floor.
After tasting my first pawpaw in the form of ice cream at a local restaurant, I declared myself an honorary pawpaw ambassador and before too long was telling everyone I knew about the fruit. It was during one of those conversations where I learned that my brother in law, who owns several acres of woods in southern Indiana, happened to have what he thought were just a few pawpaw trees growing just off to the side of his garage! He also had never heard of them (you’re welcome Dave) and after passing on what I had discovered, I asked him to keep an eye on the fruits and when they were ripe, I would come and take them off his hands. That’s the other thing- Pawpaws might not be very popular to us, but once they ripen and that sweet tropical scent fills the air, the deer and just about every other creature in the woods comes running and they can disappear pretty quickly, so the season is short. When we had an open Sunday afternoon this weekend, and I heard that they were ready to roll– off we went to search for pawpaws.
The trees he was aware of outside the garage had a good amount of fruit on them, maybe 20 or so that we were able to pick off and stick in our bucket. Later on, we wandered through the woods a bit and came across another dozen or so trees! A veritable pawpaw GROVE! They were more shaded than the ones off the garage so they didn’t have as much fruit, but we went to work shaking the long flexible twiggy trees until the pawpaws fell–and whacking at a few others with a giant stick until they did fall– and so we got another 6 or so added to the haul.
I got home and went to work. The fruit is as awkward as advertised. You want it to be soft and give slightly when pressed- like a ripe peach- any less soft and you can’t really open them up. The skin is inedible so you don’t want to mess with that. An unripe pawpaw is even more unimpressive. It’s similar to a green banana or an upripe papaya. Just not really worth the effort. Also, I had mistakenly assumed that a green pawpaw would ripen at room temperature much like a banana but that is also not the case, you want them ripe off the tree. Too ripe and they turn to complete mush, too green and they are unusable. It’s really foraged pain-in-the-ass food at its finest. I ended up with a mixed bag of ripeness and sizes (anywhere from the size of a large pear to a fig) at the end of the day. Some were custardy, full of tropical flavor, and delicious. Others were unable to be opened and too hard to mess with.
To actually GET to the pawpaw fruit, I read that you can just squeeze all the contents out of them into a fine mesh strainer and press the pulp though using a spatula or a spoon. I cut them open like an avocado, sort of working my way around the equator of the fruit, twisting to open and squeezing it out. The fruit oxidizes like an apple does, so a little lemon juice while you’re working helps keep the bright yellow color, and brightens the flavor a bit. Once you get the pulp out, you can get to work incorporating it into a variety of things. The flavor ranged in the fruits I picked from the more banana-side (in paler fruits) to VERY mango (in the yellower, riper fruits).
As far as what the heck you do with all this pawpaw pulp– there are some resources out there that guided me. The bit of research I did basically says pawpaws play really well with dairy, but they don’t play well with heat (think jams or sauces), unless heat= baked goods– like a quickbread, in which case it would work.
Because this was the first time I had really had much of the fruit to work with, I set out to find an application where the only flavor was pawpaw. Sure, you can add cinnamon, vanilla, star anise or a number of things to make the flavor more interesting–but when you are presented with a fruit that has been growing in forests and backyards of the midwest for centuries without people even knowing it– I think that’s pretty interesting by itself. No additional flavors would be added.
I sort of veered between doing a sorbet and an ice cream, when the old classic SHERBET came to mind! Why don’t we eat sherbet anymore? I used to L-O-V-E that punch that would pop up at birthday parties and (in my own personal history) when my mom would host Historic Landmarks meetings at our house. One of the members always brought sherbet punch without fail, and I was all too happy to see it, foamy and floating in a bowl of red fruit punch.
Sherbet is also super easy– it’s essentially sorbet with a dairy added– be it milk, cream, buttermilk or half and half. The pawpaw texture is almost pudding like without any intervention whatsoever after it’s been processed so I knew it would only add to the creaminess to turn it into a sherbet. It then struck me as I was scraping the finished product out of the ice cream maker that POPS would be the perfect vessel! This was clearly a spontaneous decision, which you can tell by the fact that I had ONE lonely proper Popsicle stick left, and was forced to use chopsticks for the remaining pops.
The result is exactly what I was looking for (and thank goodness for that because I am out of ripe pawpaws). It’s true pawpaw flavor, creamy and cool, and lets be honest– probably the last cool treat that we’ll enjoy out on the patio. It captures the early fall in a bright, tropical, midwestern pop. Next year, I’ll return to my brother in laws, bucket in hand– ready to shake the fruits out of the tree and into my kitchen.
Pawpaw Sherbet Pops
makes 6 pops
1.5 C Pawpaw pulp (I got that from about 4 lbs of pawpaws, although the fruit you’ll get from each one varies so this is hard to pin down. Can’t find pawpaws in your area? You can order them online from Earthy Delights, but quantities are pretty limited!)
Juice of half a lemon (about 2 Tbsp)
1/2 C heavy cream
1/2 C light corn syrup
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 tsp table salt
To get the pawpaw pulp: Cut around the equator of the pawpaw like you are cutting open an avocado. Twist and pull the sides apart (if they are ripe, this will require little effort), and then take each half and squeeze it into a mesh strainer set over a bowl, seeds and all. Taking a spatula or spoon, scrape the pulp against the mesh to press through into the bowl. Repeat with as many pawpaws as it takes to get the pulp you need. Any additional pulp can be put into a ziplock bag and frozen for future use!
Take the pulp and add to a blender. Puree on high speed for 3 minutes, until it is glossy and smooth, almost pudding like. Taste and season with salt if necessary. Pour into a medium sized bowl. Add lemon juice, cream, corn syrup sugar and salt and whisk to combine. Pour into a ziplock bag and chill thoroughly. You can either stick it in the fridge overnight, or stick the bag directly into an ice bath for an hour. The colder the base=the creamier the pop.
Bust out the ice cream maker and frozen canister. Pour the base into the canister, pop in the paddle, and turn on. Spin until the sherbet is the consistency of softly whipped cream, about 10 minutes.
For scoopable sherbet: Pour the sherbet from the canister into a storage container and press a sheet of parchment on the top directly against the surface. Seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer for at least 4 hours.
For pops: Shortly before the sherbet is ready, prep/open a gallon zipper top bag. Take the sherbet from the canister and using a wooden spoon (don’t use a metal spoon, it will scratch!) scrape the sherbet into the ziplock bag and seal. Flip it over, and cut the corner of the bag (you could also use a 16in pastry bag) and pipe the sherbet mix into the frozen pop molds, leaving about a 1/4 in of headspace to allow for some freezing expansion. Pop the lid on and stick the…sticks in. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer for at least 4 hours.
To unmold the pops: Run some hot tap water and place the molds directly underneath it (you could also fill up a large container with hot water if you are pulling them all out at once) for about 10-15 seconds. Carefully wiggle the pops out! Enjoy!!
Special shoutout to google and these articles for my pawpaw education: